Many of CT's 9/11 first responders sacrificed all

Photo of Julia Bergman

Twenty years ago, Walter Greene called his wife at work and told her to pick up their kids from school and take them home. He wanted to make sure his family was safe and all in one spot. He didn’t know when he would be home. He couldn’t say much else.

Greene was part of the Connecticut State Police canine unit that responded in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11 attacks, assisting New York police in searching for bodies in the rubble of the twin towers.

“In the beginning, it was search and recovery, and then it became recovery,” his wife Suzanne Greene, 54, who many call Suzie, recalled in an interview this week.

Greene is among the thousands of people who’ve died from a 9/11- related illness — a death toll that is now believed to be larger than the number of lives lost on the day of the attacks.

Greene, of Norwalk, died in 2018 at age 51 from a cancer linked to his time spent at Ground Zero. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 400,000 people were exposed to toxic contaminants in the days, weeks and months after the attacks.

A 28-year veteran of the force who had worked in the traffic division, Greene, who had “huge dimples,” his wife said, was an avid hunter and a hard core New England Patriots fan. He served in the Marine Corps before joining the State Police. He is survived by his wife and three sons, and was predeceased by his daughter.

Nearly 81,500 first responders and more than 30,500 9/11 survivors have enrolled in the CDC’s World Trade Center Health Program as of June. The program, authorized through 2090, provides no-cost medical monitoring and treatment for certified health conditions to those directly affected by the attacks.

Greene, who was healthy and got regular medical check-ups, according to his wife, found out in 2016 that he had stage four colon cancer. It wasn’t until about a year later when he ran into a New York cop he’d worked with at Ground Zero who’d also gotten sick that he realized his cancer could be tied to his 9/11 response.

“In his mind, he was going to beat it,” his wife said. “Up until the end.”

Suzanne Greene believes her husband was the first state trooper in Connecticut to file a claim with the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund, an account created by Congress to award money to individuals or their families who died, were injured or sickened from the terrorist attack and its aftermath. Congress extended the funding to cover claims until 2090 under legislation signed in July 2019 by President Donald Trump.

After helping Greene with his claim, State Police made up folders for other troopers who responded with documentation they would need to make their own claims, Suzie said. Two years after Greene’s death, another state trooper and member of the State Police Traffic Services died from a 9/11-related cancer.

Trooper Eugene Kenneth Baron, Jr., who grew up in Ansonia, helped search for survivors in the wreckage in the wake of attacks and also served as a liaison to Connecticut families. He died on Memorial Day last year at the age of 56.

Maureen Baron said she was in her college dorm when she got the call from her dad informing her of his diagnosis.

“I was very pissed off,” Baron, 24, said in an interview this week. “It wasn’t because he was a smoker and got lung cancer.”

Her dad loved sailing and would take her and her two brothers to Cape Cod every summer. He also liked taking them to see action and scary movies, Baron said.

“It’s happened to many first responders,” Baron said of her father’s death. “I think the way he thought about it was as horrible as it is, he knew it was not for nothing.”

In Connecticut, 598 individuals have filed claims with the victim fund, according a 20th anniversary report released recently. Overall, the fund has issued payments to more than 40,000 individuals totaling over $8.95 billion, and 48% of claimants have a cancer as one of their eligible conditions.

The fund has paid 5,953 deceased compensation claims — a “sobering” statistic, the report notes, given “more people are now believed to have died of 9/11-related illnesses than were lost on September 11, 2001.”

Nearly 60% of the claims made in the last 10 years have been from first responders.

Michael Barash, an attorney who represents more than 25,000 9/11 first responders and survivors, said fire and police departments and unions have done a great job educating their members about the fund, but many commuters who worked at the World Trade Center and in the surrounding area remain unaware they are also eligible. He represents nearly 500 Connecticut first responders and survivors.

Fire and police departments keep meticulous records, which can make it easier for their members to provide proof that they responded to the site, a requirement to file a claim. But many businesses in the area shut down and it can be difficult to track down former coworkers and bosses to provide affidavits, complicating the process for survivors.

“They were exposed to the same toxins as the firefighters, cops and volunteers who came from Connecticut and New Jersey,” Barash said. “9/11 did not end on 9/11, people continue to get sick and die,” he added.

julia.bergman@hearstmediact.com