Sept. 11 victims advocates say they secured Senate commitment to extend compensation fund

A girl walks through a memorial for the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the 15th anniversary, in Malibu, California, September 11, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Advocates of a compensation fund for emergency personnel and others who responded at the sites of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States said on Tuesday that they had secured a commitment from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for prompt passage of legislation extending the program.

John Feal, who heads a group lobbying Congress to authorize the fund through 2090, emerged from the meeting in McConnell’s office telling reporters that the Republican senator agreed to win Senate passage of a bill by August, when lawmakers typically leave Washington for a long summer recess.

“We came in here praying for the best, prepared for the worst. We were ready to shake hands or we were ready to get into a street fight,” Feal said.

“Today was a good meeting,” Feal added.

McConnell aides would not confirm the timetable for passing a bill or that it would be a 70-year extension of the fund instead of a five-year authorization as in past years.

Before Wednesday’s meeting, McConnell told reporters, “As I’ve said repeatedly, we’re certainly going to address this issue.”

As a result of working around hazardous materials at three sites in the aftermath of the hijacked plane attacks nearly 18 years ago, emergency personnel and others have contracted lung ailments, cancers and other diseases.

On June 12 the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives Judiciary Committee approved a 70-year extension of the fund.

It is designed to help provide medical care for more than 95,000 firemen, police officers and other first responders and laborers who worked at the site of the destroyed World Trade Center twin towers in New York, the damaged Pentagon just outside Washington and a field in western Pennsylvania where one of the planes crashed after passengers fought with hijackers.

In the past, some members of Congress have complained about the high cost of helping victims of Sept. 11 at a time of severe U.S. budget deficits.

Feal said that during Tuesday’s meeting with McConnell, he and fellow advocates “revisited” the battles in Congress in 2010 and 2015 for renewing the compensation fund and “we let him (McConnell) know that he wasn’t on board” back then.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; editing by Grant McCool)

Three still missing in California’s deadly mudslides

Rescue workers scour through cars for missing persons after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. January 12, 2018. REUTERS/Kyle Grillot

(Reuters) – The number of people missing from last week’s deadly Southern California mudslides fell to three on Monday as hundreds of rescue workers searched for survivors from the rain-driven slides that killed 20 people.

A 53-year-old transient, John Keating, had been listed among the four still missing but was found safely in Ventura, California, with his dog, the Santa County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.

Three people ages 2 to 28 are still listed as missing after sheriff’s detectives investigated more than 100 missing persons cases, the statement said.

Emergency officials said hopes were diminishing that they would pull more survivors from the ravaged landscape of hardened muck, boulders and twisted debris left behind by the Tuesday mudslides that scoured a landscape already barren from last year’s record-setting wildfires.

The mudslides that scoured the affluent community of Montecito, 85 miles (137 km) northwest of Los Angeles, caused the greatest loss of life from a California mudslide in at least 13 years.

A search and rescue dog is guided through properties after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. January 12, 2018. REUTERS/ Kyle Grillot

A search and rescue dog is guided through properties after a mudslide in Montecito, California, U.S. January 12, 2018. REUTERS/ Kyle Grillot

Ten people perished in January 2005 when a hillside saturated by weeks of torrential rains collapsed in the seaside hamlet of La Conchita, 18 miles (29 km) southeast of Montecito, burying more than a dozen homes in seconds.

The White House on Monday said that President Donald Trump had been briefed on the situation.

“The President and First Lady extend their deepest sympathies to the families affected, their appreciation for the first responders saving lives, and their prayers for those who remain missing,” the White House said in a statement.

Another 900 emergency personnel arrived this weekend to join the relief effort conducted by more than 2,100 personnel from local, state and federal agencies.

The destruction covered 30 square miles (78 square km), leaving 65 single-family homes demolished and more than 450 damaged. Nearly 30 commercial properties were damaged or destroyed, officials said.

As a precaution against further slides, officials have ordered residents in most of the southeastern corner of Montecito to leave their homes for what was likely to be one or two weeks.

(Reporting by Scott Malone in Boston; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Lisa Shumaker)