NEW CANAAN — For two weeks following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Rod Khattabi could often be seen at Ground Zero digging through the rubble. In the hours after the attacks, Khattabi was a first responder, working around the clock in dangerous conditions.

The former U.S. Customs and Border Protection Special Agent, who is a director of the Safety and Justice Initiative at Grace Farms, remembers returning to his Norwalk home on the morning of Sept. 12.

“I got back home and had to take my clothes off in my garage because they were covered. I had to shower and went to the hospital that day. They told me I needed to monitor my health,” Khattabi said from the Cherry Street office of Voices of September 11th, a nonprofit that works to address the long term needs of those impacted by the attacks.

During much of his time on the scene, Khattabi, wore a face mask to protect against the thick, debris-laden air. But for many others, face masks either weren’t available, or weren’t practical. Many of the physical effects of breathing such impure air, or of the psychological effects of being so close to such a major disaster, remain to be seen and often go untreated.

Khattabi and representatives from the organization were on hand on Sunday, Dec. 18 to watch a Facebook Live viewing event hosted by comedian Jon Stewart to raise awareness of the extension of the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which was approved by Congress on Dec. 18, 2015.

According of Voices, more than 300,000 qualified first responders and survivors have still not signed up for the program, which provides financial compensation and medical treatment to those near Ground Zero in the aftermath.

It’s an event that Voices of September 11th Development Director Susan Eng called “probably the biggest health disaster” the U.S. has seen, resulting in nearly 75,000 responders and first survivors seeking medical aid through the program as on June 2016 suffering from a long list of medical issues. They include: asthma, chronic respiratory disorder due to fumes/vapors, sleep apnea, interstitial lung diseases, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and a variety of cancers.

“I freaked out when I heard about other people being diagnosed with different medical issues,” Khattabi said, who to this point has not suffered any ailments attributed to his work at Ground Zero. Encouraged by the United States Customs and Border Protection department, Khattabi has taken advantage of the program since 2001.

Medical Director at the North Shore World Trade Center Clinic Dr. Leigh Wilson, who was also present at the Facebook Live viewing, said that coverage might include breathing tests, chest x-rays, blood work, cancer screening and other preventative services, though mental health screening is not covered.

The program, however, is not an insurance plan. According to the World Trade Center Health Program Member Handbook, “the Program covers initial health evaluations, yearly medical monitoring exams, and medical and/or mental health treatment only for specific certified WTC- related health conditions.” Members with health problems not covered by the program are advised on how best to seek treatment and the Victim Compensation Fund helps to cover costs of treatment for certified WTC-related conditions.

It’s a program that has helped many, but that large numbers have not taken part in. Some may not be aware of the program, but according to Kattabi, who’s spent his career in law enforcement, the problem is more complex than merely unawareness on the part of first responders and survivors.

“Law enforcement don’t talk about it. There’s a stigma if you’re enrolled. People might think there’s something wrong with you. Even though they tell you it’s all confidential, people are still scared,” Khattabi said.

Regardless of any stigma, Khattabi, who has two children, said he’s grateful for the coverage.

“It gives me peace of mind.”

justin.papp@scni.com; @justinjpapp1