WASHINGTON — When Congress finally guaranteed that America would have his back on Friday, Jaime Hazan wept.
The former volunteer EMT wasn't having his best day physically. But he felt he had to drive down from New Jersey to be in Washington, to thank the lawmakers who fought for more than a decade to establish and reauthorize the Zadroga Act on the day Congress finally made the healthcare program for 9/11 survivors permanent.
After a lengthy press conference, he approached Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), the Senate's leading sponsor of the bill — and promptly burst into tears. When he decided his thanks weren't enough, he took his EMT badge from around his neck and hung it on hers.
"It just seemed like the right thing to do," he said, slightly embarrassed that while surrounded by other heroes he was "sobbing on her shoulder."
"I feel honored that I was able to give Sen. Gillibrand my badge. She deserved it, she deserves a badge of honor for what she did," he said.
Hazan had helped set up a Chelsea Piers medical site on 9/11 for those who he thought would make to make it out of the twin towers and need medical treatment. When the building collapsed, trapping those inside, no one came. So he went back the next day to try to help find survivors.
"It wasn't my job to go, it was my duty to go," he said. "It was so hot, you couldn't see in front of you. … My boots melted."
He's since struggled with major health problems from the toxic air, including an auto-immune disorder that is only getting worse. His multiple visits to run around Congress to lobby for the program were tortuous.
"It's hard to walk. You can't breathe, it's hard to run around. You feel sick as a dog," he said.
His medications leave him mentally fuzzy at times. He's had multiple surgeries for various ailments. But like on 9/11, he felt he had to keep coming down to Washington to fight for those who are worse off.
He said the Zadroga Act helps cover his huge medical costs — more than $100,000 a year for his drugs alone, not counting doctor visits and other treatments — and pays him the CEO's salary he gave up when he lost the ability to work due to his health problems.
Though he showed up to help his fellow Americans, it took 13 years, a lucky photo with him in the background that proved he was there, and a win at the New York Supreme Court last year to get the government to cover his healthcare. And on Friday, Congress finally guaranteed that America will permanently cover his healthcare costs and the pay he's lost because he's no longer able to work.
He was still rueful over how the government had handled him and other first responders, saying he'd "committed suicide by accident to try to save dead people" by going to the pile in the two days after the attack and that in his first trips down to lobby Congress were like "getting kicked in the gut."
"We failed as a nation," he said.
After the attacks, he was unable to run the company he'd launched before his 30th birthday. He lamented "9/11 stole my chance to be a dad" because his prime years to marry were when he got sick in his early '30s. "I had big dreams and they were taken away," he lamented.
But he was grateful for the work that Gillibrand and other lawmakers like Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), Peter King (R-L.I.) and many others.
"Please continue doing what you're doing," he told Gillibrand as he gave her his badge.
"It was an overwhelming moment for both him and me," Gillibrand told the Daily News about her conversation with Hazan. "He was beyond gracious and incredibly inspiring. … In our jobs people get cynical really fast and sometimes you lose faith or hope that that you're doing makes a difference, and when someone who's dedicated to his life serving others tells you to keep working, it reminds you that we all have a role to play and a responsibility to one another."
Hazan wasn't the only emotional one after a 14-year battle to create and reauthorize the program. Seasoned politicians wiped away tears during a lengthy press conference. Gillibrand's voice quavered as she celebrated the win, calling it a "joyous moment." Even hardbitten, profane John Feal, a former Army member and demolitions supervisor on the site, had watery eyes throughout the day.
"Don't make me cry," he said with a teary smile when the Daily News asked how he was feeling about the act's extension. "I'll [say] more after I compose myself."
Hazan said the first thing he did when he heard Congress officially passed the bill was text his friend Ray Pfiefer, a former firefighter who is dying of cancer he got from the pile.
"I'm relieved. I didn't realize how much pressure this put on me, I didn't know what it was doing to me, but it was insane. It's like the weight of the world has been taken off my shoulders," he said. Because of the passage of this bill my life is going to be inordinately different, for the rest of my life. ... And that is why this bill is so unbelievably powerful."