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Ground Zero’s forgotten victims

Kenneth George, whose health was ruined at 'the pile'

Kenneth George

This article was published in the Sunday Herald on April 18, 2010.

More than eight years after Al Qaeda terrorists destroyed the twin towers, a building is rising at the site of the World Trade Centre in downtown Manhattan. Ever since the attack, thousands of tourists a day have been coming to look at a hole in the ground. Now, finally, there is something more than foundations to see: a steel frame four storeys above street level and growing.

Meanwhile, most of the men and women whose health was ruined during the clean up operation are still waiting for compensation, some without access to medical care. A legal settlement has been stalled since the judge ruled that proposed payments were too small. Despite bipartisan goodwill for a federal compensation programme, the government will not commit to fund it long term.

Many of the firemen, police officers, construction workers and civil servants who breathed in toxic dust as they cleared away debris are sick and getting sicker. How many is a hotly contested issue: 9/11 advocacy groups cite a medical study which found that 70% of responders suffered some form of ill health as a result of working at the site. Most have asthma, sarcoidosis or gastro-intestinal problems. Some have cancer. Others suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Kenneth George was working for the city highways department on September 11, 2001, digging up and resurfacing roads. The next day, he was assigned to search and rescue at the World Trade Centre. In common with most clean-up workers, he calls Ground Zero “the pile”.

“My job was to carry human remains to the makeshift morgue,” he says. “When I was walking in, there were family members there asking us to find their son, daughter, nephew, uncle, father, whatever. But I could never find anyone intact. All I found was parts. What sticks with me the most is I stepped on half a torso. That and the people screaming for their relatives.”

From September 12 until February 29, he worked double shifts, seven days a week, only leaving the pile to go home and collapse into bed. In November, he developed a dry, hacking cough, but after reading Environmental Protection Agency chief Christine Todd Whitman’s infamous assertion that the air was “safe to breathe” and the water was “safe to drink” he never seriously considered that his health might be at risk.

“I remember deeply, it was like snow, the ash falling from the sky,” he says. Most of the time, he worked without a respirator. He was given a mask and a single filter cartridge, but it wasn’t fitted properly, clogged up within a couple of hours and in any case “it’s very hard to dig on your hands and knees with a mask on.”

He was treated for bronchitis, but the cough wouldn’t go away. Eventually he was diagnosed with restrictive airway disease, plus PTSD. The medications he was prescribed caused a heart attack. He now takes 22 different pills each day. There are dark marks on his temples, where he rubbed his forehead with gloves contaminated with asbestos.

“I had lung disease and heart disease before I was 43-years-old. I was forced to retire. I can’t go in the pool, can’t walk up a long flight of steps, can’t play ball,” he says. “Even now I’m having a hard time talking. The people that perished, at least they went quick. I’m just sitting here waiting. I’ve already got two feet in the ground.”

His union health insurance covers most, but not all of his treatment – hospital co-payments have wiped out his savings. He has received no compensation from the city or the government and worries constantly about what will happen to his wife, three children and grandchild, all of whom live with him and depend on his pension. “You’re gonna see a lot of homeless responders out in the street, like you see the veterans,” he says. “It’s a sin.”

The September 11th Victims Compensation Fund, created by Congress not long after the attacks, handed out around $7 billion, primarily to the families of victims and people who worked at the site, but it closed in 2005, before many of the most damaging health consequences became apparent.

A fortnight ago, it was announced that a settlement had been reached in the lawsuit between a group of around 10,000 rescue and clean-up workers and the city of New York. The WTC Captive Insurance Company would pay out up to $657 million, on condition that 95% of the litigants accepted the deal. The judge, Alvin K. Hellerstein, then announced that he was taking “judicial control” because the settlement was “not enough”. Legal fees, at one third of the total award, would take “a very large bite,” he said.

On Wednesday, defence lawyers went to federal appeals court to challenge Hellerstein’s decision. For the time being, the settlement is in limbo. In any case, some of the most informed plaintiffs are far from sure that they should accept the offer. Kenny Specht, founder of the New York City Firefighter Brotherhood Foundation, says it’s “insulting and unacceptable” that after lawyers have taken $300 million, responders should be happy to divide up the rest.

Plaintiffs who can show that they worked at the site would get $3,250 whether their health was affected or not. Those with just a doctors note would get $6,500. People with more serious conditions would get substantially more, but the list of ailments attributable to working at the site is in dispute. Litigants are being asked to sign up without knowing how much they would receive.

Specht is livid that lawyers Napoli Bern Ripka are advising their 9,000 clients that the settlement is the best possible deal. “If you tell someone who has been waiting for compensation for five years – maybe they’ve lost their house, maybe they got divorced – you tell them that this money is available now, then what are they going to do? They’re spreading fear.”

He worked at Ground Zero for the first six weeks, whether he was supposed to be on duty or not. “We stood on these piles of whatever burned and the smell was absolutely horrendous,” he remembers. “But I didn’t feel like I was in danger.” Then on October 21 he stood beneath two huge grappling machines as they shook dirt from the debris and wondered whether the dust particles could be harmful.

He started to get sick in 2006, after the congressional compensation fund had closed. First his gall bladder was removed. He developed joint pain, acute memory loss and restless leg syndrome. In 2007 he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. “Everything that I have, I continue to be told by doctors at the fire department that it’s not from my time at the Trade Centre and that’s absolutely ridiculous,” he says. At 41 years old, he is often too weak to get out of bed.

His lawyers have told him that no court would rule that his cancer was caused by exposure to the toxic cloud. “In developed countries around five in every 100,000 men can be expected to contract thyroid cancer,” he says. “I was the 17th New York city firefighter who was down at the Trade Centre to get the disease, in a workforce of 11,000” – more than 30 times the national average. Specht has known young firemen who died of testicular cancer, colorectal cancer and gastro-intestinal cancer, but the link is still unproven.

The definitive study into the dust’s effects on lung function was released last week, putting to rest claims that previous surveys were inadequate or politically-motivated. The report, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that exposure left “a substantial proportion of workers with abnormal lung function.” Almost 40% of the 13,000 rescue workers who took part in the research suffered from chronic shortness of breath, wheezing, sore throat or sinus drip. On average, working in the initial clean-up operation aged their lungs by ten years.

New York state’s two Senators, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, are trying to engineer a deal in Congress – the $11 billion James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act – but the administration has so far been lukewarm in its support, particularly for plans to lock in funding for 30 years. A House Of Representatives sub-committee recently approved a measure to set up a $5 billion fund for responders. Similar plans have been in the works for four years already, without ever threatening to pass.

“What you have now is a settlement and a bill in Congress,” says John Feal, of 9/11 advocacy group the Feal Good Foundation. “I’m an optimistic person and I truly believe that responders will have two options by the end of the year.” His left foot was crushed by a steel beam on his fifth day at the pile – “the guy next to me fainted because blood was shooting everywhere and bones were sticking out of my sock” – but he considers himself lucky.

John Feal working at Ground Zero

John Feal working at Ground Zero

“The old saying that ‘there’s always someone worse off than you’ is so evident in the 9/11 community,” he says. “I don’t have cancer, like so many of these guys.” The Zadroga bill, named for the first person to officially die from Ground Zero-related illness, includes cancer on the list of eligible diseases, unlike the proposed legal settlement.

The mental toll of pulling body parts from the wreckage is even harder to assess. PTSD is not included in any of the suggested compensation packages, despite increasing number of responders forced to retire by nightmares and flashbacks. “I suffer badly from night terrors,” says Kenneth George. “When I hear the crickets at night in the summertime, it brings me back to Ground Zero, because the firemen, when they’re down, they have a response beeper that’s beeping and chirping. The sound of the crickets reminds me of being there.”

Developer Larry Silverstein recently signed a deal to build two new towers at the site with up to $1.6 billion in public money. The National September 11 Memorial And Museum won a new grant of $2.29 million as it continues to collect first-hand testimony, pictures and videos from people who were there that day.

There is no guarantee that sick responders will ever be suitably compensated. “It’s incredible to believe that we’ve been left to die,” says Specht. “But at least I’m still alive. What about the people who died not knowing what would happen to their families?”

Feal agrees that the proposed settlement is far too small: “You can’t put a price on what these men and women have been through. You might as well give everyone a WTC scratch card – find three Trade Centre symbols in a row and win $3,250. I find it comical. The fact that men and women who have cancer are only getting thousands of dollars is insulting.”