THREE retired firefighters who worked at “ground zero” – scene of the World Trade Centre collapse in New York on 11 September 2001 after al-Qaeda terrorists few planes into the twin towers – have died on the same day from cancer.
Lt Howard Bischoff, 58, and firefighters Robert Leaver, 56, and Daniel Heglund, 58, died within hours of one another on Monday.
There have been ongoing concerns that cancer may be connected to toxic dust released after the towers collapsed as hundreds of first responders have been diagnosed in the past 13 years.
Fire commissioner Daniel Nigro said that the three deaths were “a painful reminder that 13 years later we continue to pay a terrible price for the department’s heroic efforts”.
Thousands of people who aided the rescue and recovery effort were diagnosed with respiratory ailments and other health problems in the years after the 9/11 attack on New York.
Cancer, though, remains the biggest fear for people exposed to the gritty soot at the site. Doctors and researchers are still uncertain whether there is any link between those illnesses and 9/11.
Cancer is the leading cause of death for Americans in their mid-40s to mid-60s, making it hard to tell which deaths, if any, might be related. Most medical studies have not found evidence of a substantial surge in cancer rates, though researchers have spotted worrying trends.
Congress has set aside $2.78 billion (£1.6bn) to compensate people with illnesses that might be related to the attacks. Administrators of the fund have included the most common types of cancer as qualifying illnesses.
James Lemonda, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, said: “On that day when first responders arrived, the air was toxic and remained toxic for many months afterward.”
About 18,000 people have been given treatment for effects from the dust since the attacks. The Fire Department of New York lost 343 firefighters at the World Trade Centre.
The department maintains a memorial to 89 other firefighters it believes died of illnesses. Fire officials knew the three were sick, said Mr Lemonda, whose union represents fire lieutenants, captains, battalion chiefs, deputy chiefs, medical officers and supervising fire marshals. One had leukaemia, one had oesophageal cancer and the third had colon cancer.
Their deaths come as advocates urge Congress to re-authorise the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which provides medical treatment and compensation to those who became ill from exposure to toxic air after the twin towers collapsed.
The resulting World Trade Centre Health Programme covers respiratory and digestive disorders and mental health issues, and some cancers were proposed to be added to the list in 2012.
Since the attacks, there have been ongoing legal and political fights over the extent of possible victims from World Trade Centre dust and debris, as well as what precautions or warnings were issued or taken by government at the city, state and federal level.