Ground Zero Still Claiming Victims

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Today a paramedic was laid to rest; she did her job with courage and honor

On September 11, 2001 planes crashing into World Trade Center. Within minutes one tower came crashing to the ground and soon after the second tower fell. The smoke was seen for miles. I stood at a large picture window in the six-floor office building of Con-Edison, just a mile away as the crow flies, and watched the events unfold in stunned disbelief. Who would have ever thought of such a thing? The dust cloud traveled with the wind it contained more than just smoke; the cloud also contained pulverized bits of asbestos.

Since I had just become a New York State Emergency Medical Technician, I rushed to the site to help with the wounded. I was part of a volunteer force of hundreds that night. There were no survivors to administer care to; they had been removed within the first couple of hours directly after the disaster. It took me all of five hours to make my way from Brooklyn back to lower Manhattan where I lived and then on down to the WTC site.

If the news had been announced to stay away, that a deadly carcinogen had been released would I have still gone down there? Not without proper gear! And the workers I saw had no proper gear issued to them. Some had on respirators, but most didn’t. I was given a pair of safety goggles and a thin paper mask. That’s all.

All of lower Manhattan had a fine layer of gray dust covering everything. From the sidewalks to the window ledges twenty stories up, a complete blanket of this nasty powder covered our world, from 14th street and down. Working at the site I saw this gray powder mixed with the water the Fire Department was spraying on the smoldering pile of rubble, and it became a gooey slippery mud.

I worked in the temporary morgue trying to identify bodies that were found. We searched the pockets for identification and we cataloged the obvious. Each body brought to us was covered by this muddy gray “clay”. It made it almost impossible to see a face, and even more impossible to describe the clothing in which the body was clad. We did our best and made as good a record as we could before shipping these bodies to cold storage for more identification. In some cases we found a wallet with a name, sometimes only a torso came in, sometimes it was only a lower body…one such lower half came in with his wallet still neatly stuffed in the side pocket.

I volunteered for two days then went back to my job at Con-Edison. The EMS employees of the City of New York, FDNY EMS, worked there for many days, weeks, and even months later. One such worker was Deborah Reeve. I did not know her personally, but I’m sure we saw each other down there.

Deborah worked out of Station 20 for the EMS services as a paramedic. A 17-year veteran she worked in the morgue area also, moving corpses around, cataloging, doing whatever she was assigned to do. Today Deborah Reeve is being laid to rest at San Andres Presbyterian Church in Bronx, NY. She was 42 years old. She died after a long battle with mesothelioma; she was diagnosed in 2004, after having symptoms in 2003. Mesothelioma is a lung cancer that is directly related to exposure of asbestos. Deborah like many others, myself included, were exposed to a material that has been recognized as a carcinogen since 1960 and was subsequently banned in 30 countries around the world.

Deborah is survived by her husband, and two children ages 12 and 6. She died at Calvary Hospital in Bronx, NY a hospice care facility. The battle was long, hard, and expensive. Deborah was the first EMS worker to receive disability compensation of about $30,000 per year as a direct result of her efforts at the 9/11 disasters. She was however denied Workers Compensation by the City of New York. FDNY did not allow fellow EMS workers who wished to donate their unused sick time to her family to help pay her medical bills. The department gave $25,000 toward her burial expenses.

Deborah is not the first nor will she be the last to die as a result of this environmental catastrophe. Lawsuits are now finding their way into our courts against the EPA, and other Federal agencies for deeming it “safe” to return to downtown, when in fact a great public health risk was evident. Many clean up workers were brought in to clean with a paper mask and a rag, illegal aliens in search of a day job were hired by cleaning companies to get rid of the mess.

Asbestos is a mineral that is mined straight out of the ground. The USA has stopped mining asbestos but continues to import it as a raw material and in goods and products that contain it. Asbestos is a strong fibrous material that has strength and flexibility and is used in many products to make them stronger and heat resistant. Many types of insulation contain asbestos, and since it has been deemed a health risk, it has been removed from many buildings. Contracted companies who know how to protect themselves and the public from exposure usually do asbestos removal, an untrained immigrant with a rag and cloth mask doesn’t cut it. Even Union Workers who were issued Respirator Masks are now worried, a product recall says they may not have been protected.

How many people will the attack of 9/11 take in the end? How many families will be affected? The medical world is only touching the tip of the iceberg now, with at least $90 million dollars earmarked for tracking the health of the workers at Ground Zero. This funding is only extended to 2009. It can take up to 20 after exposure, depending on the density of exposure, for someone who was exposed to become ill as a result of that exposure.

My condolences go out to Deborah and her family, and all the families who will have to deal with this in the future.

Sondra Hickman is the author of Before Life Got Complicated (2006). Sondra was born in Tennessee, raised in South Carolina and lives in New York.