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May 4 2009

9/11 Ground Zero Worker Battles Workers Comp

"Ground Zero worker Daniel Arrigo, health and home gone, awaits some compensation . . . For 9/11 responder Daniel Arrigo, trapped in a broken body, every day is a battle. A battle to breathe, to make ends meet and to get what he says is his due."

Ground Zero worker Daniel Arrigo, health and home gone, awaits some compensation

Construction worker Daniel Arrigo worked at Ground Zero after the 9/11 attack and now suffers from several respiratory illnesses.

For 9/11 responder Daniel Arrigo, trapped in a broken body, every day is a battle. A battle to breathe, to make ends meet and to get what he says is his due.

The 53-year-old disabled construction worker and father of three, who often clocked 70-hour weeks in a four-month cleanup at Ground Zero, has been waiting almost a year for his workers' compensation claim to be approved.

Like thousands of other 9/11 responders who got sick, Arrigo is caught between the slow-moving state compensation board and insurance firms that skillfully fight 9/11 claims.

"It makes me so angry," said Arrigo, who has been locked in a protracted fight with insurance giant Zurich North America. The firm covered Tishman Construction, which employed Arrigo as a flagman at 140 West St. after the terrorist attack.

"If you read any of my medical reports, it says I've got the same thing that 20,000 other people down there had."

Doctors at Mount Sinai Medical Center's World Trade Center Medical Monitoring clinic have diagnosed Arrigo with severe lung disease from toxic dust, fumes and vapors he inhaled on the job. He has also got bronchitis and gastric reflux.

A self-described workhorse who refused to quit, despite two small strokes in 2003, Arrigo finally threw in the towel in January 2008, when he could no longer tie his boots.

He takes 10 medications, including inhalers and steroids to open his air passages, and he sleeps with an oxygen machine.

The family was evicted from its longtime Staten Island home after falling behind in rent, and moved into cramped quarters with Arrigo's brother in Long Beach, L.I.

The Arrigos and their kids are living on his Social Security disability and a modest union pension. Bridget Arrigo took a $10.50-an-hour job as a Lane Bryant salesclerk to help out.

Arrigo said his only hope to make his family whole again rests in getting awarded medical benefits and $1,600 a month from workers' comp. He is also part of a 10,000-person federal class action suit.

"Everything I am doing right now is for my children and for my family," said Arrigo, choking back tears. "I may never see a dollar from this. But if I drop dead, my kids will be covered. ... That's all I care about."

Insurance giant plays games

Arrigo thought he had won the workers' comp battle two months ago when Judge Joseph Nizza ruled his work-related injuries had caused his problems.

On Feb. 19 and again on March 19, two separate judges ordered Zurich to pay $17,040 in back payments, $400 a week going forward and provide health coverage.

Arrigo and his wife began to look for a three-bedroom house to rent in Long Beach, where their kids are enrolled in school.

Then Zurich appealed the award, saying, "There's little medical evidence to support these awards" and "it is not at all clear we are in fact the liable party." Two weeks ago, Judge Joani Sedaca found Zurich solely responsible for any payment. Lawyers for Zurich finally conceded and now want to cross-examine Arrigo's doctors.

"For Zurich to show up 10 months later and say, 'Oh, yeah, we just determined we covered it' is just so preposterous," said Michael Pyrros, Arrigo's lawyer.

"This case could have been resolved in three months."

Arrigo's case is under review in Albany. Zurich, which declined to comment, has vowed to continue its fight.

Meantime, Arrigo said he spends his days on his computer, walking his brown poodle up the block and waiting for his wife and kids to come home.

Last week, their arms wrapped around their teddy bear of a dad, Daniel, 14; Caitlin, 12; and Shannon 10, hugged him tight.

"It's hard watching my dad go through all this," said Caitlin, a sixth-grader. "I get scared."

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