Responders get short shrift and survivors mostly go unscreened
For years we vowed “to never forget” our 9/11 first responders and yet, more than sixteen years later, there’s some strong circumstantial evidence that’s just what has happened. So often we choose to look away because the truth is just too awful and our absurd current national narrative and beltway buffoonery is just too distracting.
Sadly, our inattention comes as thousands of these first responders, yesterday’s 9/11 heroes, are dealing with their deteriorating health battling diseases, including a myriad of cancers. For the 90,000 first responders the toxic exposure they experienced to the caustic and poisonous air at the WTC site will cast a life long shadow over them and their loved ones.
Two days after the attack then EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman, former New Jersey Governor, made a public pronouncement that the air was safe to breath in lower Manhattan. It got Wall Street back up and running but for these first responders it was like being mortally wounded by friendly fire.
Whitman issued a press release downplaying any air quality issues in lower Manhattan. “We are very encouraged that the results from our monitoring of air-quality and drinking-water conditions in both New York and near the Pentagon show that the public in these areas is not being exposed to excessive levels of asbestos or other harmful substances” and that “Given the scope of the tragedy from last week, I am glad to reassure the people of New York … that their air is safe to breathe and the water is safe to drink.”
This dubious statement, which Whitman has recently apologized for making, had profound consequences for the 90,000 first responders. It also will have life long impacts for the 400,000 additional men, women, and children, that are classified as World Trade Center “survivors”. This group lived and worked south of Canal Street and should also be getting life time health screening, according to Dr. Michael Crane, the medical director at the WTC Health Program Clinical Center of Excellence at Mount Sinai.
The survivors includes tens of thousands of civil servants who kept the city, state and federal court systems running as well as other critical government offices operating. Also in this diverse mix, thousands of children who either lived in the toxic zone, or attended school there. No doubt, tens of thousands of New Jersey commuters who worked in the zone for the three months the WTC fire continued to burn, and the several months after when the massive clean-up continued to generate clouds of toxic dust.
Dr. Crane said about three quarters of the first responders have been medically screened but that only 12,000 people are in the survivor program, that’s about 3 percent of the 400,000 non-first responders WTC population. “My understanding is that there is a tremendous influx now of patients who are becoming ill, or recognizing their illness and trying to get care,” Dr. Crane said in an interview that he gave me in my capacity as a reporter for the Manhattan based Chief-Leader.
“Certainly we know very well by the studies from the World Trade Center Registry, which combines the population both of responders and survivors, that the folks who went to work, opened their windows, sat in rooms that had air conditioning ducts full of dust, went to school had significant exposures and those exposures are adding up to ongoing illness,” Dr, Crane said. “Maybe not at the rate of the responders, who had a more concentrated exposure, particularly if they were there on 9/11 but certainly a significant exposure. And what that has come to mean to us is that there will be disease. So those officers, teachers, those Manhattan Community College students, those students at Stuyvesant High School, all of these folks are at risk for illness based on what we have learned.”
Part of the toxic exposure was a consequence of a steep learning curve by officials according to Dr. Crane. “Downtown it seems there was a generalized lack of coordination and lack of understanding about the need to get this stuff cleaned up and cleaned out. Over time it has happened,” he said. “Before, people were living in it and breathing it—it counts as exposure, maybe low level exposure. but never the less still exposure and that we believe it is significant.”
Dr. Crane said that it is critical that people who suffered a WTC toxic exposure get screened, not just for their own well being but so that doctors can accurately map the dozen of known ailments and cancers as well as identify medical issues that researchers have so far missed. “It has always been a civic act to be screened,” Dr. Crane said. “It has always been an act of heroism to step forward and say ‘you know I may not be sick now but I know this is important for science, and for my friends, and for my family, my co-workers, and the people in the community that I become a part of this because I am part of the population and we need to know about me.’”
He continued. “My personal concern and my personal fear is that the family of cancers that are going to be highly prevalent in our population will be very, very rare ones, ones that are like usually ‘one in a million’…… are concentrated in the people we have not seen yet and will never know about and will never be reported…..It is so important for a public health program like this, where we are trying to evaluate the impact of this exposure over the long term, to see as many people of the impacted population as we possible can.”
While the majority of first responders have been screened many find themselves enmeshed in an expensive legal legal battle to get officially designated as WTC disabled, even though they have been certified with a WTC disease and declared disabled by the Social Security Administration. Without that designation from their respective pension fund they can’t avail themselves of the federally-endowed September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. That multi-billion fund will compensate them and their families for the economic losses they experienced because their working life was in many cases cut short by decades.
Survivors, including commuters from New Jersey, who worked in the zone south of Canal Street, and have subsequently been stricken with WTC linked illness or a condition, can also qualify for both the Zadroga Act and the federal Victim’s Compensation Fund, according to Michael Barasch. He is one of the leading WTC compensation lawyers. Barasch represented NYPD Detective James Zadroga, for whom the Zadroga Act is named. His firm has helped 5,000 clients collect $1 billion from the WTC Compensation Fund. “That toxic dust was very democratic,” Barasch said in a phone interview.
Last month, at a public hearing held by the New York State Senate Committee on Pensions and the Civil Service both New York state and New York City officials testified that they have rejected more 9/11 WTC disability claims from first responders than they approved. The New York State system also covers the employees of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.
Colleen Gardner, the Executive Deputy Comptroller for the New York State and Local Retirement System told the Senate Committee that out of 331 applications for WTC disability “100 of those applications are still being processed. 115 applications have been approved. 101 have been disapproved for medical reasons and 15 were disapproved for administrative reasons.”
NYCERS, the New York City retirement system, confirmed for the panel that their agency had received 977 WTC disability applications and that 111 of those applications were under active review. 299 applications have been approved while 365 have been denied, meaning 45 percent of World Trade Center disability cases were approved while 55 percent were denied.
NYPD police officers and FDNY firefighters have separate pension systems.
Until very recently Gary Smiley, 53, a retired FDNY rescue paramedic, who lives in Franklin Park, NJ , was caught up in an expensive bureaucratic night mare with NYCERS. He survived the collapse of both World Trade Towers and at one point had to dive under his rig for cover. At the center of the most intense part of the debris cloud, he couldn’t see anything and could hardly draw a breath.
The day of the attack he witnessed the worst of the human carnage, which included victims’ bodies, who had jumped from the upper floors of the towers, hitting the ground all around him. For a few days he was hospitalized with severe respiratory distress and severe smoke inhalation. But he was drawn back to the pile with his colleagues to work on the recovery effort.
“I left in 2012 after I did my twenty-five years and I wasn’t dead yet and I wanted to get out of the state,” Mr. Smiley said. “I moved to North Carolina and started working as a paramedic for the City of Charlotte but had to come back to New York City for sinus surgery I needed but when I got back to Charlotte I was fired for absenteeism and I lost my house.”
Back in New York City he said it was difficult to find shelter and at one point, despite his serious respiratory issues, was living in a mold invested house. “My biggest problem was being able to get a place with my therapy dog ,but thanks to help from Homes for Heroes I found a decent place in New Jersey,” not far from where his grandchildren live in Staten Island, he said.
Both the Social Security Administration and the New York Workers Compensation Board signed off on his his 9/11 related disability. After he lost his first round with NYCERS in 2013 Mr. Smiley hired an attorney and exhausted all of his internal appeals. Having struck out at NYCERS, he filed an Article 78 case with state courts and in January 2017 the judge in the case ordered NYCERS re-consider his disability claim.
“This is my fifth medical board and it has been dragging on for four years. I had to hire two lawyers and I have spent $25,000,” Mr. Smiley said. The former paramedic says he’s not alone when it comes to EMS workers caught in NYCERS revolving door. ”We have one woman with 9/11 linked breast cancer and we have another with 27 hospitalizations from asthma and NYCERS turned them both down,” he said. Smiley finally got his NYCERS sign-off for his WTC disability last month.
In between his many medical appointments, Smiley continues to try and help his fellow first responders, still struggling to navigate a pension bureaucracy that was not designed to handle the post 9/11 wave of claims.
For New York City employees who played a role in the massive WTC response and recovery, the first step is often to get a certificate confirming they participated in the effort. The sites that are covered include the city morgue and the Fresh Kills Landfill, where debris was screened for remains. So far, the city has rejected close to 40 percent of these applications, which applicants have to swear and attest are true.
“We are currently working with 40 to 50 members to see if we can get them verified,” Smiley noted. “They get rejected mostly because either the member needs more detailed information about their time at the scene or NYCERS feels as though the forms and information needs to be better verified.”
“Here we are sixteen years later and we have people that are dying basically and are not getting the benefits to which they are entitled,” said Oren Barzilay, president of Local 2507, which represents the FDNY EMS/EMT personnel. “Are they just waiting for us all to die?”