World Trade Center volunteer battles lung cancer

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In the days after the September 11th attacks, thousands of people from across the country flooded into the World Trade Center site, wanting to help.

Craig Sotkovsky was one of them.

Now 53, Sotkovsky was living in Jersey City with his now wife.

They watched the Twin Towers fall from just across the river.

"And for some reason, I just thought I needed to be there," Sotkovsky remembers.  "And, that's what I did."

It took two days to get to the site, which was right across the river.

The air was thick with smoke. 

"I was smart enough to bring along a respirator," he says.  "I did not know it would be not-usable in about 10 minutes. The filters just clogged up."

He was there, working on a "bucket brigade" just two days.

"I didn't think anything of the stuff I was going through."

But, in 2012, Sotkovsky, who by then had moved to Mexico and started a family, developed a chest infection.

This went on for 5 years.

In October of 2017, getting sicker, Sotkovsky was sent to a lung specialist in Atlanta, where now lives.

The doctor asked him if he had ever been exposed to anything unusual.

"That's the first time I mentioned 9/11," he says.  "And after that, everything changed. The tests changed.  The way everyone spoke to me changed. Things became more urgent."

Sotkovsky was diagnosed with lung cancer, at 52.

"I was just like, 'Whoa!  I have an 11-year old daughter, and I have a beautiful wife," he remembers thinking.  "You know, it shocks you."

It doesn't shock attorney Michael Barasch, whose New York City law firm Barasch McGarry represents 12,000 people, like Craig Sotkovsky, who spent time at or near the World Trade Center site after the disaster, and have since gotten sick.

"So many people felt this connection, because 344 firefighters died that day, and 60 police officers died that day," Barasch says.

The attorney is helping Sotkovsky apply for the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund, set up by the U.S. Government for people who can prove their illnesses are linked to their exposure to toxins in around the World Trade Center site.

"The respiratory illnesses started right away," Barasch says. "But the cancers have to have been diagnosed after 2005, to have been linked to the toxic exposure. We are now seeing so many more cancers.  These aren't just cancers, these are cancers on steroids, multiple cancers."

Many of Barasch's clients were first responders or volunteers.

"Not a day goes by without one of my clients passing away," he says.

Craig Sotkovsky, who hasn't worked since his lung cancer diagnosis and surgery, is still waiting on a decision on his case.

He says he lives with chronic pain that began after his operation.

But Sotkovsky insists he has no regrets.

"I tell people it (lung cancer) is one of the best things that ever happened to me, for the simple reason it made me accelerate my life," he says.  "It made me realized there is no time to waste. For me, that's what it's about.  I can't stop.  And I won't."

The deadline to apply for the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund is December 18, 2020.

Barasch encourages anyone who thinks they might qualify to apply soon.

Barasch is also part of an effort to push Congress to extend the fund beyond 2020.

He says it is the right thing to do.