In December 2015, a retired New York firefighter and Sept. 11 first responder named Kenny Specht sat down with Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah."
It was the second time in five years that Specht appeared on the show to talk about Congress’s lack of action on a bill that would compensate health-care costs for 9/11 first responders who had developed illnesses related to the toxic fumes they inhaled while clearing rubble and recovering bodies at Ground Zero after the 2001 terrorist attacks. The first time Specht spoke with Stewart, in 2010, he was joined by three other men.
Now, they were joined by three empty chairs.
“Just out of curiosity, where is everybody?" Stewart, a former “Daily Show” host who was appearing as a guest, asked the firefighter.
Since their first appearance, Specht told him, two of the first responders had become too ill to appear. The other had died of cancer.
The sobering moment was punctuated by an infuriated Stewart, who has spent the past decade repeatedly slamming Congress for delays in funding health care for ailing first responders and survivors who risked their lives on 9/11. Stewart’s fury on the issue has been nearly unparalleled among other public figures, emerging louder than arguably anyone else on Capitol Hill or in the media each time money for first responders’ health care has been at risk of evaporating.
Now he’s back again, urging Congress this week to pass new legislation that would permanently fund health care for ailing 9/11 first responders and survivors, as yet again, the 9/11 victims compensation fund is running out of money.
Stewart appeared this week in interviews on CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC alongside John Feal, a first responder who lost his foot to an 8,000-pound beam of steel and donated a kidney to another first responder. Feal told CNN that he had attended 181 funerals for fellow first responders, and had been to Capitol Hill dozens of times to urge lawmakers to pay more attention to his dying friends. “There are men and women, uniform and nonuniform, responders and survivors, that are panicking," Feal said, "and for many, this is a lifeline.”
Stewart added, “The idea that 18 years later they’re still tugging on the hemline on the government to get this bill through and get it funded properly is truly beyond comprehension."
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), as well as Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), announced bipartisan legislation Monday that would ensure that 9/11 first responders who fall ill in the future will be covered under the Victim Compensation Fund, which will expire in 2020.
Last week, the Justice Department’s special master who oversees the funds announced that future payouts may be cut by 50 to 70 percent, saying “I am painfully aware of the inequity of the situation ... but the stark reality of the data leaves me no choice.” As the fund is running out of money, the special master said, compensation claims are increasing at unprecedented levels as more people become sick.
Congress has revived the compensation fund twice, in 2010 and 2015, but both times gave it only a five-year lifeline, leading public servants to petition their elected officials for a more permanent solution. They are able to seek health-care compensation from the fund because of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which was extended by Congress in 2015 to last 75 years — again in part because of Stewart’s aggressive lobbying alongside the New York public servants.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks have always been personal for Stewart, who said in 2001 that he could see the World Trade Center from his apartment in Lower Manhattan. Nine days after the attacks killed nearly 3,000 people, Stewart appeared behind his wooden desk on “The Daily Show," stumbling at first to shirk the awkwardness that comes naturally with a late-night comedy show in the wake of the nation’s most unfathomable tragedy. “Tonight’s show is obviously not a regular show,” he said.
Then came an unforgettable monologue.
“Any fool can blow something up. Any fool can destroy. But to see these guys, these firefighters, these policemen and people from all over the country, literally, with buckets rebuilding ... that is ... that’s extraordinary. And that’s why we’ve already won," he said, his voice cracking. "It’s light. It’s democracy. We’ve already won. They can’t shut that down.”
Years later, in 2010, Stewart would air another unforgettable 9/11 segment — this time in a comedic sketch aimed at the Republican-led Congress for not funding health care for first responders. He began by satirizing the idea that one would think health care for 9/11 first responders would be an easy bipartisan deal to strike.
But some Republicans opposed the Zadroga Act, in part because of concern about a tax increase on international companies.
“Oh, there’s a tax increase to pay for this? I’m sorry, I didn’t know they were going to try to pay for the bill to provide health care for those suffering for their heroism with a tax,” a red-faced Stewart yelled sarcastically.
Weeks later, when the bill appeared to be hopeless after Republicans tried to filibuster it, Stewart brought on a panel of first responders. Days later, the Senate brought the bill back to the floor as the legislative session drew to a close. It passed.
“I don’t even know if there was a deal, to be honest with you, before his show,” Specht told the New York Times after the 2010 bill passed. “I’ll forever be indebted to Jon because of what he did.”
The legislation passed by Congress was only temporary, however, and so in 2015, as the fund was set to expire and a deal to save it was still up in the air, Stewart returned to the halls of Congress to hound Republican lawmakers who had yet to commit to voting to extend the funding, going door to door and bringing cameras along with him. Then, he persuaded Trevor Noah, his “Daily Show" successor, to let him back on the program.
On Monday, Stewart said it was “beyond my comprehension” why he and the first responders were still singing the same tune.
Wearing a navy blue T-shirt displaying the FDNY Ladder 42 logo, he appeared at a news conference alongside the first responders, as well as Gillibrand, Schumer, Gardner and other lawmakers, and addressed the journalists in the room.
He said he didn’t “want to ask you, I just want to beg you,” to tell the stories of the men and women suffering from diseases traced back to the fumes of Ground Zero.
Feal, the 9/11 first responder, took the stage after him, pleading that they not be forgotten.
“I love Jon Stewart. He’s my friend. But I love Kenny Specht and Rich Palmer and Michael Connor more," Feal said. "Those guys are sick. Those guys are dying. So we’re gonna challenge every member of Congress in this town. We’re going to challenge their empathy. We’re going to challenge their humanity.”