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Published on NewsOK Modified: January 1, 2013 at 9:59 pm •  Published: January 1, 2013
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c.2013 New York Times News Service<

NEW YORK — On the day the terrorists flew into the World Trade Center, the Wu-Tang Clan canceled its meeting with a record mixer named Richard Oliver, so Oliver rushed downtown from his Hell's Kitchen apartment to help out.

He said he spent three sleepless days at Ground Zero, tossing body bags.

''Then I went home, ate, crashed, woke up," he said. He had left his Dr. Martens boots on the landing outside his apartment, where he said they "had rotted away."

''That was kind of frightening," he continued. "I was breathing that stuff."

After the Sept. 11 attacks, nothing symbolized the city's rallying around like many New Yorkers who helped at Ground Zero for days, weeks, months, without being asked. Now Oliver, suffering from back pain and a chronic sinus infection, is among scores of volunteers who have begun filing claims for compensation from a $2.8 billion fund that Congress created in 2010.

But proving they were there and eligible for the money is turning out to be its own forbidding task.

The other large classes of people who qualify — firefighters, police officers, contractors, city workers, residents and students — have it relatively simple, since they are more likely to have official work orders, attendance records and leases to back them up. But more than a decade later, many volunteers have only the sketchiest proof that they are eligible for the fund, which is expected to make its first awards early this year. (A separate $1.5 billion treatment fund also was created.)

They are volunteers like Terry Graves, now ill with lung cancer, who kept a few business cards of people she worked with until 2007, then threw them away. Or Jaime Hazan, a former Web designer with gastric reflux, chronically inflamed sinuses and asthma, who managed to dig up a photograph of himself at Ground Zero — taken from behind.

Or Oliver, who has a terse two-sentence thank-you note on American Red Cross letterhead, dated 2004, which does not meet the fund's requirement that it be witnessed or sworn.

''For some people, there's great records," said Noah H. Kushlefsky, whose law firm, Kreindler & Kreindler, is representing volunteers and others who expect to make claims. "But in some respects, it was a little bit of a free-for-all. Other people went down there and joined the bucket brigade, talked their way in. It's going to be harder for those people, and we do have clients like that."

As documentation, the fund requires volunteers to have orders, instructions or confirmation of tasks they performed, or medical records created during the time they were in what is being called the exposure zone, including the area south of Canal Street, and areas where debris was being taken.

Failing that, it will be enough to submit two sworn statements — meaning the writer swears to its truth, under penalty of perjury — from witnesses describing when the volunteers were there and what they were doing.

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Proving presence at the site might actually be harder than proving the illness is related to Sept. 11, since the rules now allow a host of ailments to be covered, including 50 kinds of cancer, despite an absence of evidence linking cancer to ground zero. A study by the New York City health department, just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found no clear association between cancer and Sept. 11, though the researchers noted that some cancers take many years to develop.

Unlike the original compensation fund, which dealt mainly with people who were killed or maimed in the attack, "This one is dealing with injuries that are very common," said Sheila L. Birnbaum, a former mediator and personal injury defense lawyer, who is in charge of the new fund. "So it's sort of a very hard process from the fund's point of view to make the right call, and it requires some evidence that people were actually there."

Asked how closely the fund would scrutinize documents like sworn statements, Birnbaum said she understood how hard it was to recreate records after a decade, and was going on the basic assumption that people would be honest.

In his career as a record mixer, Oliver, 56, has been associated with seven platinum and 11 gold records, and two Grammy credits, which now line the walls of his condominium in Queens.

He said he first got wind of the Sept. 11 attacks from a client, the Wu-Tang Clan. "One of the main guys called me: 'Did you see what's on TV? Because our meeting ain't going to happen,'" he recalled.

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Having taken a hazmat course after high school, Oliver called the Red Cross and was told they needed people like him.

''I left my soon-to-be-ex-wife and 1-year-old son and went down," he said. "I came back three days later," after surviving on his own adrenaline, Little Debbie cakes handed out to volunteers and bottled water.

After working for three days setting up a morgue, he was willing to go back, he said, but "they said we have trained people now, thank you very much for your service."

After the attacks, Oliver said, his income dropped from about $300,000 a year to almost nothing. "This town kind of shut down musically," he said. Then he began having back problems that have put him on crutches for the last five years, pain and depression, which wrecked his marriage and his ability to work, he said.

As a volunteer, he feels marginalized.

''The police, the firemen — they got their thing," he said. "It's like World War II: The natives of Papua New Guinea did as much fighting as the GI's, and all they got was goodbye, thank you for all the fish."

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As proof of service, he has his two-sentence Red Cross letter, another letter from a doctor he worked with at Ground Zero, some pictures he took and a handwritten pass. "If that isn't enough, then. ... " he said forlornly, trailing off.

If Terry Graves' experience is any guide, Oliver will need to have those letters redone.

Graves worked as a volunteer Spanish-language interpreter after Sept. 11, according to letters from two people who remembered seeing her at the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Disaster Assistance Service Center. Graves used the letters to qualify for workers' compensation, but the Sept. 11 fund bounced them back to her, saying they would accept only original sworn documents.

Her letters were written in 2007, and one signatory has since moved out of New York.

''I don't think I'm going to get this money," she said. "By the time you prove it, you're going to be dead."

She also has a copy of a FEMA badge with her photograph on it.

''I couldn't come up with another witness if I tried," she said. "I wasn't there to socialize; I was there to do a job."

Hazan, 41, used his expired Rockland County emergency medical technician's card to wheedle his way past police lines to ground zero on Sept. 12, 2001.

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Hazan said that he spent much of his one day at ground zero looking for someone to help, but that that did not mitigate his suffering. He is being treated at a federally financed World Trade Center Health Program at Mount Sinai Medical Center, and he has left his Web designing career to play bass guitar and piano for improvisational theater, which he says soothes his depression and anxiety.

As proof of presence, he has a sworn letter from a Rockland County ambulance official saying they had met by chance at Ground Zero but offering no insight into what Hazan was doing there. The same official looked through his photographs and found one showing a man in a blue T-shirt with broad shoulders and a balding hairline, taken from behind. He is wearing an N-95 mask and looking at a collapsed building in a cloud of dust.

It was, Hazan said, the one time he was grateful for his distinctive receding hairline.

''I was only there for a day," he said. "I am one of the lucky ones. I have a picture and a living witness." Still, he added: "I don't know if I'm going to qualify. You won't know till the money turns up."