19 Years After 9/11 First Responders Are Still Paying the Ultimate Price

Sep 11, 2020

9/11 Firemen's Memorial Monument
Credit Robert Hennelly

WBGO News Director Doug Doyle speaks with WBGO Journal reporter Bob Hennelly

DOYLE: It was 19 years ago this week that two airliners ploughed into the World Trade Center and forever altered our world. On that day, close to 3,000 people perished, including 343 firefighters who were killed when the WTC towers collapsed.

In the years since, the death toll from that dark day has continued to climb and most likely has exceeded the number of deaths on the day of the attack as a consequence of the toxic air that persisted in lower Manhattan for months. With us now is WBGO's Bob Hennelly, who as a reporter with the Chief-Leader, has been tracking the long-term health consequences for first responders and the residents of lower Manhattan. Thanks for joining us Bob. First, because it was a long time ago, could you go back and describe the circumstances back in the fall of 2001 that led to so many thousands of people being exposed to air that would either kill them or make them chronically ill and just what has been the scale of the human toll since?

HENNELLY: It is important to keep in mind that after 9/11, thousands of first responders from New York City, even from around the world and certainly from throughout the United States rushed to the World Trade Center. We had several months of a very active scene where for many weeks the fires continued to burn. And one of the things that set up this circumstance and this huge death toll was the U.S. EPA under the leadership of Gov. Christie Whitman, under pressure from the Bush administration advised people in lower Manhattan the air was “safe to breathe” and the consequence of that was people did not take the occupational protections required. Now, there is a consensus about that occupational exposure but for a period the city resisted admitting there had been such an exposure and so now we have more people that died from that exposure than died the day of the attack and more than 50,000 people enrolled in the WTC Health Program. It is actually known that half of the firefighters have long term respiratory issues.

DOYLE: In your reporting you have said that much of the reluctance of the city's United Federation of Teachers to return to the classroom this fall in the midst of the pandemic was informed by their post 9/11 experience. How so?

Annual FIremen's Monument 9/11 in Riverside
Credit Robert Hennelly

HENNELLY: It is interesting because there is an echo of history in our current circumstance with COVID. Back in 2001 there was a well- intentioned imperative to return to normalcy. Remember, lower Manhattan is a global financial nerve center with Wall Street. The UFT even moved its headquarters to lower Manhattan and it signed on to the Giuliani administration’s decision to reopen dozens of schools in western Brooklyn and lower Manhattan with 2,500 teachers and 19,000 students K-12. As a consequence, because of how toxic the environment was, they have lost dozens of teachers and support staff to WTC diseases and there is an effort to locate the 19,000 former K-12 students who may now have long term WTC health issues which take on additional urgency with the complications of COVID. So, this 9/11 history, along with the city’s initial hesitancy to shut the schools down when the pandemic first hit—which also resulted in a loss of life for the union, all inform the UFT’s caution.

DOYLE: We know that one of the characteristics of COVID is that people with pre-existing conditions like the WTC linked diseases are most at risk from the deadly virus. Are there first responders who were on active duty on 9/11 and developed a WTC condition since and are still working? How are they negotiating that risk to themselves and their families?

HENNELLY: Of course, the risk to families is the new wrinkle here with COVID that has to be taken into account. We have had several FDNY EMTS, some of whom had WTC health issues, who succumbed to the virus. Close to 300 New York City civil servants, an undetermined number of whom may have had WTC conditions, have succumbed to the virus. We lost 131 MTA employees to the virus, most of whom belonged to the TWU, the union that represents most of the transit system’s workforce. I have not seen a breakout of how many may have had a preexisting WTC condition. If you just had started your civil service career on 9/11 you might be thinking about retiring now and all of these health issues can weigh heavily on you. And that’s why the city’s unions are trying to promote early retirement for this cohort of employees who are also most at risk from COVID.

DOYLE: You have written for InsiderNJ that there is a strong historical parallel between what 9/11 first responders had to deal and what essential workers across the country are now facing in the midst of this pandemic that's killed almost 200,000. What's the through line between these two events almost 20 years apart?

Friday marked the 19th anniversary of the terror attacks on the WTC Towers
Credit Robert Hennelly

HENNELLY: In both cases it was reliance on official pronouncements. In the case of 9/11 and the World Trade Center the EPA gave a guarantee the air was safe to safe to breathe. Similarly, we have a situation where the CDC early in the crisis and told individuals in health care and first responders they should reuse their N-95 masks. At the time the New York Nurses Association raised the concern that the CDC’s effort to manage inventory was short sighted. The way that N-95 masks are supposed to be used is to remove your mask and dispose of it after each clinical encounter. It’s not something you adopt and put in your lunch and the nurses’ union predicted this would result in the loss of life for healthcare professionals and would turn the hospitals into a vector for the virus we were fighting. Sadly, both things happened because the union was ignored.

DOYLE: Thanks for joing us on the WBGO Journal