Although the 9/11 commemorations are over, more than 40,000 rescue and recovery workers, mostly union members, who risked their lives in what was one of the largest rescue efforts in world history, hope their country doesn’t forget them.

While more than 600 union members were killed on Sept. 11, thousands more who worked in the rubble of the World Trade Center are at risk for chronic diseases.

Workers such as Gene Flood, 45, a member of Iron Workers Local 40 in New York City. Flood and 50 members of his local drove three cranes down to ground zero on Sept. 11 because, he says, “we thought there could still be people alive who could be saved. We had the machinery and the know-how. I felt like it was my duty to do it.”

Flood pulled up steel and rubble for three days straight with no sleep. Exhausted, he went home for one day, got some sleep and came right back to ground zero, worked the weekend, went home for a week and then back to ground zero on weekends.

Twenty-two people from his old neighborhood in the city died at ground zero, says Flood, who now lives in Highland Mills, N.Y., some 47 miles north of the city.

Flood says he didn’t think he would get sick from the rescue and recovery work because then-Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Christine Todd Whitman assured the public the site was safe. The New York Daily News reported the Bush administration gave Whitman the right to bury embarrassing EPA documents about the chemicals and other hazards by classifying them as secret.

CNN reported earlier this month that the EPA sent a letter to the city’s health department on Oct. 5, 2001, noting concerns about worker safety at the World Trade Center site.

The letter says: “In addition to standard construction/demolition site safety concerns, this site also poses threats to workers related to potential exposure to hazardous substances, including building materials, hazardous materials stored in the buildings and combustion products emitted from the smoldering rubble.”

For three straight months after 9/11, Flood says he couldn’t stop coughing. He finally went to the doctors around Christmas 2001 and they told him he has asthma. He’s been on medication ever since, and he gets respiratory infections four or five times a year now.

Flood is just one of thousands of workers who got sick in the cleanup. A study by doctors at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City finds nearly 70 percent of firefighters, police officers, emergency medical crews, construction workers, utility workers and volunteers have suffered lung and other health problems.

Flood says he can’t help but think that the nation’s leaders have forgotten people like him — those who do not seek out the media to complain about their situation. There are thousands of workers who need help, but who aren’t getting it, he says, because “nobody wants to admit anything happened down there.”

The government ought to take the lead, says Flood, and seek out those who got sick at ground zero and pay for their health care. His union is helping him, but he says the union’s funds could be depleted because so many members need help.

New York Democrats Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rep. Jerrold Nadler introduced legislation Sept. 7 that would give new federal health benefits to first responders, recovery workers and residents of lower Manhattan who have developed 9/11-related illnesses. The 9/11 Comprehensive Health Benefit Act would extend Medicare benefits to people suffering from medical or mental health problems associated with exposure to toxic chemicals at ground zero.

That would help a lot of people like Flood, who are unsung heroes. His dedication and heroism showed through when he was asked if he would have gone down to ground zero if he knew he would have gotten sick. After a short silence, he confidently replied, “Yes. I would have gone. It was my duty.”

Reprinted with permission from AFL-CIO Now blog.