9/11’s forgotten victims: ‘We’re living in a toxic time bomb’

By
Lorien Haynes

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on
11 September 2001 are seared on our collective consciousness. But few people know that the tragedy
left
a toxic legacy that will claim more lives than those lost on the day
itself. Lorien Haynes reports on the fight for health and justice by
rescue workers who
were engulfed by the deadly dust cloud

Firefighters at Ground Zero after the terrorist attack

11 September nine years ago, 2,975 people died in the worst-ever
terrorist attack on US soil. The body count was shocking, and the
trauma suffered by victims’ families hard to contemplate. But the
danger to New York citizens was far from over. In addition to those who
perished in and around the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon and on
United Flight 93, there are thousands of ‘shadow’ victims: people who
inhaled the toxic dust cloud that enveloped Ground Zero and who are now
suffering serious – in some cases fatal – illnesses as a direct result.
Indeed, far more people are likely to die from the effects of the dust
than in the attack itself.
These victims include office workers,
shopkeepers, students and local residents – but the worst-affected are
the ‘responders’: emergency service, recovery and volunteer aid workers
who were exposed to the site at close quarters. These people went to
help – and are paying with their lives. The New York City Department of
Health has already recorded 817 deaths of World Trade Center (WTC)
responders from illnesses generated by working on the site. But as well
as the official figures, there are currently another 20,000 recorded
sick by the WTC Medical Monitoring Treatment and Environmental
programmes.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg. According to
the World Trade Center Health Registry, 410,000 people were heavily
exposed to WTC toxins causing restrictive respiratory illnesses and
cancers, which changes 11 September from a terrorist attack into a
full-blown environmental disaster on the scale of Chernobyl, where the
initial toll was overshadowed by deaths and illnesses that were still
occurring up to 20 years later.

On 9/11 the dust from the
pulverised towers was so thick and far-reaching that you could write
your name in it on cars in Brooklyn. It contained chemicals including
asbestos, lead, dioxin and deadly PVCs (the WTC buildings were the most
heavily computerised in the world), mercury from 500,000 shattered
fluorescent fixtures, plus emissions from more than 200,000 gallons of
diesel fuel smouldering underneath the site. Robin Herbert, co-director
of the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring Program, has expressed his
concern about the number and combination of cancer-causing elements and
other chemicals released, and observers have noticed a tendency for
fast-developing and multiple cancers among emergency workers.

Office workers were caked in toxic dust from the collapsed buildings

In the urgency of rescuing survivors from the rubble, crucial safety
procedures seem to have been overlooked and conflicting instructions
given by the authorities. People were operating without the correct
protective clothing. Rescue teams were provided with paper masks that
became clogged within seconds. Families who lived in the vicinity were
told that they could clean up the contaminated dust with wet rags. A
week after the attacks, in a bid to restore the collective morale of
New York’s population and kick-start Lower Manhattan’s financial
district, local workers, students and residents were told it was safe
to return to their jobs, schools and homes. It was business as usual.
Wall Street was open. New York had moved on.

But the shadow
victims haven’t been able to move on – 70 per cent of emergency service
workers have been diagnosed with serious respiratory problems as a
result of their involvement with Ground Zero. And the real scandal is
that post-disaster healthcare (mental and physical) has been so badly
neglected that there is barely any provision for them. 

David
Miller, 41, is one example of a Ground Zero hero now seriously sick.
Fit and robust before 11 September, he served on the day with the New
York Army Guard. Nine years on, he is suffering from head, neck and
skin cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, post-traumatic
stress disorder (PTSD), and mesothelioma, an incurable asbestos-related
lung cancer that normally takes decades to develop. In David’s case it
was full blown just three and a half years after spending two weeks on
the Ground Zero site, known as the Pile.

David is a powerful
public speaker at 9/11 memorial rallies where, usually carrying his own
oxygen tank, he details the lack of support offered to 9/11 workers by
the government. ‘There are tens of thousands of us who are sick from
World Trade Center toxins. We’ve got respiratory disease, PTSD,
gastro-intestinal disease, all types of cancer. The politicians and the
general public need to know this. We need help, and we need it now. We
need to get funding and research, and to raise public awareness.’
In
response to the situation, David formed the lobbying charity 9/11
Health Now with farmer, model and writer turned activist Claire
Calladine. They have come across thousands of individuals whose health
has been destroyed by exposure to the toxic dust. Individuals who have
been financially, as well as physically, crippled by medical costs that
aren’t covered by their insurance policies.

Scroll through their
website (911healthnow.com) and you’ll find the emergency services
mother-of-two who returned from a five-week stint at Ground Zero to be
diagnosed the following year with an aero-digestive cancer, and has had
multiple lesions removed from her airways and mouth. There’s another
mother – and former lawyer – whose three-month volunteer stint helping
with missing persons at the Ground Zero Salvation Army tent resulted in
a degenerative connective tissue disease requiring injections and
round-the-clock medication to keep it at bay. She was initially told by
doctors that nothing was wrong with her: it took three years of court
proceedings to have her disease officially recognised as WTC-related
and covered by health insurance. She continues to fight for
compensation to help support herself and her children now that she can
no longer work.

Police officers Christopher Castro and Judith
Hernandez were part of the first team to arrive at the scene after the
first plane hit the World Trade Center

Then there’s the stockbroker caught in the dust cloud during the
collapse of the towers, who, at 32, has chronic myelogenous leukaemia,
a cancerous mutation of the bone marrow. And the policeman’s wife whose
exposure to 9/11 dust through laundering her husband’s uniform over
eight months resulted in nerve damage and fibromyalgia – and who,
pregnant at the time, has had a child born with an extra set of ribs, a
long torso, and a connective tissue disease. She too is currently
fighting for financial aid. 

All this is shockingly hard to take
in. Many victims are so seriously ill that it is difficult for them to
fight their own cases, and very few are prepared to talk publicly for
fear of jeopardising their chance of compensation. (None of the people
mentioned here wanted to be identified by name.) It remains a largely
untold story in the US, let alone in the UK. 

The events of 9/11
were unprecedented, and the ensuing confusion reflects this. There is
no existing legislation to support the emergency service workers. The
fact that many responders were unpaid volunteers means that they are
not covered by their medical insurance policies because they were not
technically ‘at work’. Moreover, the link between exposure and illness
has been incredibly complicated to prove. 

‘It was like we’d walked into hell… We were treating firefighters who were coughing up the most horrible stuff’

Trying
to quantify the effects of a toxic dust cloud and argue that multiple
sicknesses have developed as a result of inhalation through the skin
and mouth has been new territory for lawyers. Some 62 per cent of
claims to date have been rejected, which has resulted in lengthy
litigation and appeals. It’s increasingly clear that new legislation is
needed to facilitate aid for what is arguably becoming the greatest
workplace disaster in American history. 

In March this year the
government offered a $657 million (£412 million) settlement, which has
risen to $712 million (£448 million) to date, to 10,000 responders, who
were given 90 days to vote to approve the offer. But under the
settlement criteria, someone with severe asthma would stand to receive
more money than someone with terminal cancer, because medical evidence
regards asthma as a more plausible result of exposure to the dust.
Given that the offer has to be approved by 95 per cent of the
plaintiffs, many of whom have cancer themselves – and that they have to
approve it before knowing what their individual settlement might be –
negotiations seem certain to continue. The vote is now due on 30
September, and the hope is that, if the potential settlement is passed
as a government bill, the supporting charities and victims’ groups now
forming will be just the start of a full-scale aid network.

Meanwhile,
a 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, drafted as a government bill to
provide funding for the World Trade Center health clinics and the
ever-expanding number of victims, was rejected by Congress in July.
Named after James Zadroga (a New York Police Department officer who
died in 2006 of a respiratory disease attributed to his service at
Ground Zero), the Zadroga Act would have set up a fund to spend $3.2
billion (£2 billion) on healthcare over ten years, and up to $8.4
billion (£5.3 billion) on compensation. Voting it down, opponents
called the measure a ‘slush fund’, which they claimed would have been
open to abuse, but the general consensus is that it would have been a
springboard to national recognition of the crisis. Another attempt to
push the bill through may be made in September.

The focus of 9/11
has always been on the victims in the towers: those who died on the
day. But this secondary tragedy is even bigger in terms of numbers –
and just as tragic, if less dramatic in its photo-news impact. The
‘shadow victims’ have had to go to extraordinary lengths to be seen or
heard or treated, and their story deserves to be more widely told.

 

‘Our only option is to lobby. We won’t go quietly’

Reggie
Cervantes (left), 49, a volunteer emergency medical technician
(providing paramedic care), was part of one of the first teams on site
at Ground Zero. A single mother of Lia, 13, and Aiden, 11, she now
suffers from pulmonary fibrosis — a terminal lung disease found in
heavy smokers and construction workers who have come into contact with
asbestos. In her case, the diagnosis was confirmed by doctors as being
a direct result of 9/11.

Nine years later, approaching the
anniversary of the attack, Reggie is one of the few dust victims
prepared to tell us her story. ‘I got there as the second tower was
collapsing. We could see people running out. The first thing I
encountered was an aeroplane engine. Charred. Smoking. Surreal. There
was dust flying everywhere. It was hard to see. I tripped over
something and fell, breaking my glasses. Then I realised it was a
dismembered arm. A man’s arm, with a wristwatch and a wedding ring. My
impulse was to say a prayer. We were close to St Peter’s Church, and
inside I saw the body of Father Judge, who I knew. Later I found out he
had been killed by a falling body while giving a firefighter the last
rites.

‘It was like we’d walked into hell. We were treating
people who had been injured in the collapse of the second tower:
firefighters whose eyes were burning, who couldn’t breathe and who were
coughing up the most horrible stuff. We were there when the third
building came down. It felt like an earthquake. Everything was
collapsing around us. ‘Eventually, we were ordered to move back to the
Staten Island Ferry terminal, where they tried to gather all responders
together to see who was missing. We stood there, covered in thick, grey
dust and debris, to hear we were missing a young volunteer crew of
college students.

‘The police lieutenant knew I had small
children, so he sent me home. I arrived back in the Queens district
where I live at 10pm and I remember undressing in the street. I was so
caked in dust I didn’t want to bring it indoors to the children; I put
everything into the bin by the front door — boots, uniform — until I
was standing in the street in my bra and pants.

Reggie with college sweetheart Dennis (right) and their extended family

‘When I got inside I showered for 20 minutes. I couldn’t get the
dust out of my hair or my ears. As I washed, I could feel that my
eyebrows had been singed.
‘Then I went next door to my neighbours,
who had been looking after the kids. They thought I’d died. They’d been
looking for me on the television for hours, and my son, who was then
two, didn’t talk for five months after that night. I felt a semblance
of his anxiety myself the following week trying to locate missing
friends, colleagues and family. I lost seven friends and my cousin on
9/11.

‘I volunteered for 33 hours that week. I was there on 9/11,
for ten and a half hours, spent the next day at home, and then returned
on Thursday and Friday. On the Friday I realised my health had been
affected. My throat was raw, I was having trouble breathing — it felt
like an elephant was sitting on my chest. And on the Saturday I went to
the emergency room. The doctor gave me antibiotics and told me to ‘make
the best of it. You’re not dead.’

‘We survivors felt we were the
lucky ones and I, like many others, retreated into shocked isolation.
No one was counselled, no one debriefed. But two months later I was
still wheezing and I knew something was seriously wrong. I had been a
runner,
a swimmer and a cyclist my whole life. Now I suffered an
asthma attack while running: suddenly my lungs couldn’t keep up with my
body.

‘My health has deteriorated rapidly ever since. I have been
unable to continue my paid job as a foster care administrator. And for
myself and many other 9/11 volunteers there has been an almighty battle
for compensation. Volunteers were not covered by their medical
insurance policies, so I now have medical bills of $43,000 [approx
£27,000] which can’t be paid because, as a single-parent family, we
currently live on $1,100 [£690] a month social security disability
allowance. And although, initially, we had some hope that the
settlement offer would help us, the fact that you have to agree to it
before knowing what your own amount might be means I cannot vote for
it. It’s a gamble I’m not willing to take.

Many of the victims are so seriously ill that it is difficult for them to fight their own cases, and very few are prepared to talk publicly

‘I’ve been active in advocating support for the 9/11 emergency service workers. I spoke
up
because some politicians walked their friends to the front of the
compensation line and left other really sick and dying responders to
fend for themselves and lose their homes. And I know my compensation
claims were stalled in retaliation for my speaking out, as well as for
my role in Sicko — Michael Moore’s documentary about corruption in the
North American Health Service, which highlighted how volunteer workers
serving on 9/11 were not covered by their insurance policies and were
left untreated. As part of the film, I was sent to Cuba for treatment.
It was there that
I learned my illness was incurable. I do not
regret my involvement; the film was too important. It was the first
time that our sickness was exposed.

‘Our only option is to lobby
to raise awareness. We’re not going to go quietly. And because I know
that trying to cope with this alone is heartbreaking, I help the
FealGood Foundation, which was set up [by Ground Zero demolition expert
John Feal] to help sick responders. And I coordinate an anonymous group
for emergency service workers suffering from post-traumatic stress
disorder.

‘There has been a personal benefit to my campaigning.
Seven months ago, when I was lobbying in Washington DC, I heard from my
college sweetheart Dennis, now divorced with two children aged 15 and
13. I hadn’t seen or spoken to him for 25 years. He had heard about me
and knew I was sick, and he rang and said: ‘I want to raise your
children when you are gone.’ 

‘I visited him in California last
Christmas to check his parenting skills. I remembered him as an
incurable flirt, a handsome marine who turned heads (he still does),
but he was great with his own kids and mine. My 13-year-old daughter
and his 13-year-old son are like twins. We have just moved out to live
with him on the West Coast and it feels like a tremendous blessing to
renew our friendship. He has said he’ll care for me to my last breath. 

‘Until
then, I will continue to quote Martin Luther King: “Our lives begin to
end the day we become silent about things that matter.”’

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/you/article-1306032/9-11s-Toxic-time-bomb.html#ixzz0y54vVy77

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