The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Five years after 9/11:
Burying the heroes

Sep 4, 2006

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City, 40,000 people – including workers, firefighters, EMS workers, and cops – massed at Ground Zero. Now well over 12,000 of them are extremely sick and disabled, with more falling ill every year.

They were in the prime of their life. But today many of them are so disabled, they can hardly get out of bed. They suffer from scarred lungs, severe headaches, shortness of breath, chronic bronchitis, acid reflux. Some have already died.

There is not a day that President Bush doesn’t invoke 9/11 at least once. He regularly salutes those who rushed to the scene to search for survivors, excavated the site and carted away the debris.

But in all the five years since 9/11, government policy has never wavered: all those who rushed to the scene and pitched in have been stonewalled when it comes to their health and safety.

Denying Health and Safety

Within the first hours after the twin towers came crashing down, Christine Todd Whitman, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), assured the first workers to get there that the air was safe. This was the exact opposite of what she had been told by her own department experts.

Thus, the government deliberately put recovery workers in harm’s way and defenseless, without special protective gear and breathing devices. “We didn’t want to scare people,” Whitman later said.

The impact was immediate and devastating. In the first 24 hours after the attacks, 240 firefighters and EMS workers sought treatment, half for dire respiratory symptoms. Three were hospitalized, and two went into acute respiratory arrest. Within 48 hours, more than 9,000 firefighters – 90% of the New York Fire Department’s earliest responders – suffered acute respiratory symptoms.

In the weeks and months that followed, the hospitals continued to fill up with those who had been working at the site.

Yet, the government did not issue warnings or health and safety guidelines to people continuing to work at the site.

In fact, President Bush issued an executive order that gave Whitman the power to bury embarrassing documents by classifying them as “secret.”

Stonewalling on Medical Care

In the period that followed, scientists and doctors did 27 studies, detailing how the toxic cloud that erupted after the collapse of the WTC ate at the lungs of the workers, a disaster in the making. A 2004 report in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives said it was “the largest acute environmental disaster that ever has befallen New York City.” The studies showed how the air had become laden with highly alkaline concrete dust, glass fibers and particles of lead, chlorine, antimony, aluminum, titanium, magnesium, iron, zinc and calcium. Flaming fuel and plastics released carcinogens including dioxins, polycylic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls and polychlorinated furans.

But the government refused to carry out a comprehensive public health care campaign. On the contrary, government officials ordered the New York State Health Department to abandon a program designed to monitor the health of 9,800 state and National Guard personnel, and the New York City Health Department has yet to issue treatment guidelines for physicians.

Stonewalling on Disability and Survivors’ Benefits

Rising numbers of ailing workers, who could no longer work, took early retirement. When others were forced to go on disability, the government tried to block them from receiving benefits.

“Eventually, I got three-quarters disability, but the city had played these little technicalities. The lawyer for the city said that because the department hadn’t filed a form, there was no proof that the accident I was claiming for had actually occurred. The judge had to instruct the lawyer for the city that it can be taken for a given that 9/11 had happened,” William Gleeson, age 45, told the Daily News.

The public outcry and outrage in New York has been so great that the politicians are now being forced to assure the families of workers, who may very well die from their ailments in the coming years or even months. New York Governor George Pataki, a Republican, and U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, have introduced legislation to provide “line of duty” benefits, which means that if someone gets sick and dies, the survivors will get 100% of his or her final pay. Of course, the legislation has a catch. A very big one: the survivors will be compensated only “...if it can be conclusively proved” that their deaths were caused by working at Ground Zero. In other words, the government gives itself more “technicalities” to deny benefits to the survivors.

Heroes – just like other workers – are used up and discarded every day by this capitalist society.