Before 9/11, paramedic Marvin Bethea took two prescriptions, and now he swallows and ingests between 13 and 15 medications daily.
“I’ve been diagnosed with World Trade Center (WTC) cough, sinusitis and asthma, major depression and Post-Traumatic Street Disorder (PTSD). I finally had to stop working on January 8, 2004,” the Kew Gardens resident said.
It took two full years before Bethea’s workers compensation case was settled in July 2006, but he said he was lucky in that his medical treatment was performed at Mount Sinai Medical Center and paid for by private donations.
However many others who worked on the pile have not been as fortunate.
“They are losing their homes. They are losing their families because they are not making the money that they made before, and it’s not our fault that we can’t work anymore,” Bethea said.
Since 2001, Bethea has been vigilantly advocating for first responders to get health and financial benefits and co-founded the Unsung Heroes Helping Heroes Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to the first responders. Bethea has also enlisted support from Congressmembers Jerrold Nadler, Vito Fossella, Hillary Clinton, and Carolyn Maloney.
With the sixth anniversary of the terrorist attacks, Bethea is solidly booked with speaking engagements where he revisits his experience that day.
On September 11, 2001, while on assignment for St. John’s Hospital, Bethea, his partner James Dobfon and a student paramedic were called into lower Manhattan.
As they were driving across the 59th Street Bridge, Bethea saw the second plane fly into the Twin Towers.
“We knew then that this wasn’t an accident. This was terrorism,” Bethea said.
At the site, Bethea and his partner were helping the wounded into ambulances when the first tower fell. Afterward Dobfon drove away with several injured people in the ambulance.
“At that point we just were doing what we had to do,” Bethea said, explaining that he spotted a woman crying and went over to help her when the second tower began to give way. They both dove into the Millenium Hilton, narrowly escaping the falling debris.
After some time, he and the woman crawled through a two-foot space onto the street, Bethea searching for other survivors in need of medical care.
“It was like I was the last man on earth,” he said, describing torched cars, piles of rubble and the vacant streets.
Bethea, thinking he was hallucinating, did not realize at first that the ambulance pulling up in front of him was real. He reached down to feel that his own arms were still connected when his partner jumped out of the car.
“He thought I was dead, I thought he was dead, so we just hugged each other,” Bethea said.
Later in the day, both Bethea and Dobfon were sent down to the ferry port, where a makeshift hospital was set up. They stayed until 5 p.m., when they headed back to St. John’s, where they had to strip to their underwear on the street for a decontamination shower to wash away a coating of debris and dust.
“My biggest mistake was that I went back to work the very next day. I must have cried about 40 days in a row. I lost 16 people I knew,” Bethea said, explaining that because he is unmarried and has no children he went back to work the next day as a paramedic. He also volunteered at Ground Zero on September 14th. “On October 16 , all of this caught up with me.”
Bethea who had no history of heart problems had a stroke on the job and temporarily lost the use of his right arm and leg.
Nevertheless, he willed himself to recuperate and was back at work within three months.
“I’ve had a gun to my head once, shot at twice, and nothing compared to those two towers coming down,” he said, explaining his desire to go back to work. “I can survive a stroke.”
However, Bethea was plagued with anxiety, nightmares and breathing problems, and in 2004, he had to call it quits.
“Now when I go up three flights of stairs I’m huffing and puffing,” he said.
Although he has received an award from the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund for his injuries, Bethea said that he wants to make sure that he will be able to provide for himself.
More specifically, what he wants is equal compensation for city first responders and their private counterparts, who comprise 40 percent of the paramedic workforce. Although city paramedics have received three-fourths pay in workers compensation, Bethea’s yearly sum is just over one-fifth of his former take home pay.
Currently there is a bill awaiting review in the State Assembly, and the proposal would double Bethea’s compensation benefits, as well as those of four other living paramedics.
“Now my fate lies in the hands of [Assembly Speaker] Sheldon Silver,” Bethea said.
However, Bethea worries that national interest in the cause is waning.
“Some people are tired of hearing about 9/11 and other people in the country just don’t know how sick the people … are,” Bethea said.
Meanwhile in Congress, Maloney, Fosella, and Nadler recently announced plans to introduce a new bill to ensure medical monitoring and treatment for those sick from WTC toxins; expand care to local residents, workers, students, and volunteers; provide compensation for economic damages; and build up area medical facilities.
Maloney praised Bethea for his work both on 9/11 and afterward.
“Despite his illnesses, he has become a true champion for his fellow 9/11 responders,” Maloney said. “I know that Marvin will not rest until our government finally does right by everyone whose health was compromised by the Trade Center attacks. Marvin is a great New Yorker and a great American and I am very proud to call him my friend.”
Compensation extension for 9/11 workers
The deadline for 9/11 workers and volunteers to register with the state Workers’ Compensation Board has been extended to August 14, 2008.
In July, Governor Eliot Spitzer extended the deadline by one year and workers and volunteers who pitched in at Ground Zero can file a claim even if they are not sick.
In general, Workers’ Compensation claims must be filed within two years, but World Trade Center recovery personnel were afforded extra time in the event that they become ill in the future.
Registration forms are available at the state’s Workers’ Compensation Board website, https://www.wcb.state.ny.us/content/main/forms/wtc-12.pdf.