Thursday, October 22, 2009

Family's Request for 9/11 Benefits Stonewalled by Federal Government

Richard Pearlman's Family Fights to Correct Injustice

By Conor Greene

On 9/11, Richard Pearlman, an 18-year-old member of the Forest Hills Volunteer Ambulance Corps, died while assisting fellow New Yorkers at the World Trade Center. He had been delivering legal papers to One Police Plaza when he heard the call for all first responders and was taken to the scene in an NYPD squad car. Despite his heroic efforts, which were chronicled in a photo in Newsweek magazine, his mother is still fighting for benefits due to her under a federal program.

“It’s a smack in the face,” said his mother, Dorie Pearlman. “Any information they asked for, I supplied them. It’s my government and they turned their back on me... I’m not just doing it in the name of my son, I’m doing it in the name of all the EMS workers who seemed to be shoved under the carpet.”

Years after her son was the youngest victim in the World Trade Center, a neighbor told Dorie, 54, about the Department of Justice’s Public Safety Officer Program, which was created in 1976 to provide benefits to families of Americans who are killed in the line of duty while protecting fellow citizens. She applied in March 2008 but was told the time limit had expired. She requested an extension and filed again the following month only to be informed in August 2009 that her application was denied.

In their denial, the feds claimed that Richard wasn’t certified to perform first responder services, even though he was certified by the Red Cross and was at the scene as a member of the ambulance corps, which is certified by the state Department of Health. "This isn't some fly by night organization," said Dorie. Much of her frustration is because it isn't even clear why her application was denied. "Various legal terms I don't understand," she said. "When I called they just referred me to a section of the law."

She approached several area politicians for help, including Rep. Anthony Weiner, who she ran into in September when the ambulance corps dedicated a wall at its headquarters in her son’s honor. In 2001, Weiner (D-Forest Hills) passed legislation that increased payments made by the federal government from $100,000 to $250,000 to help the families of first responders.

“On 9/11, my constituent joined hundred of other heroic first responders who selflessly rushed into the World Trade Center to save lives,” wrote Weiner in a letter to Hope Yankas, director of the program at the Justice Department. “Mr. Pearlman answered the call to help his fellow New Yorkers and made the ultimate sacrifice in the process. His mother should not be denied the benefits due to her.”

Weiner joined Richard's parents at the FHVAC headquarters on Monday to call attention to their plight. “Many in the neighborhood know the story of Richard,” said Weiner. “Clearly, this family is eligible under the law... It’s as simple as that – volunteers are included if supported by groups” such as the FHVAC.

However, Richard’s case is “unusual” since he was “a volunteer, urged to be there by law enforcement” after the call for first responders went out over the radio at One Police Plaza, said Weiner. Even so, the benefit program “is intended for people exactly like your son” and their families, he added.

“The money isn’t important - it’s justice. If I can’t get justice in his name, and for all the EMS workers, what good is the Justice Department? I’ll be the same person no matter what I get. I’m a mother who lost her son,” added Dorie. She recalls “waiting by the phone day and night.” His body was eventually found on Easter Sunday, 2002. In all, eight EMS workers died on 9/11.

While she harbors no resentment towards the police and fire department, she feels like EMS workers aren’t getting the same treatment. “If it were a police officer or firefighter, it would be no problem... I begrudge them nothing - they lost like everyone else. But it is the EMS workers getting shoved under the table,” she said.

Richard joined the FHVAC when he was 14 years old because it was the only department with a youth program, taking the bus to its Metropolitan Avenue headquarters from Howard Beach. “Day and night he was here - it didn’t matter what the weather was,” said his father, Barry, 57. He said his son been accepted to LaGuardia Community College at the time of his death and was licensed in first aid and CPR.

“He gave his life to help strangers. He never told them he couldn’t help because he was out of his jurisdiction...“This was his life - the ambulance corps and the Boy Scouts [in Middle Village] was my son’s life,” said Dorie. “He literally died for them, died to help people.”

Weiner hopes that some political and public pressure on the Justice Department will result in the feds releasing the benefit to the Pearlmans. “To me, this seems like an open and shut case, but up to now it’s been shut,” he said. “We’re hopeful that with an additional push, this benefit that is due to your family will finally arrive.”

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