9/11's forgotten victims: 'We're living in a toxic time bomb'By Lorien Haynes
Last updated at 1:35 AM on 29th August 2010
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
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.
'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.”’
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