First responders on Sept. 11, 2001 and others who worked and lived in the area of the World Trade Center site were exposed to toxic fumes and dust

By Diane Herbst
September 11, 2019 11:32 AM
Michael O'Connell
Courtesy Michael O'Connell

Michael O’Connell was a New York City firefighter in his early 30s with his first child on the way when he woke up one morning in 2007 “feeling like someone came into the room that night and beat me up with a baseball bat.” 

Hours later, doctors told O’Connell he had a rare disease called sarcoidosis, the growth of tiny collections of inflammatory cells — commonly found in the lungs and lymph nodes. 

O’Connell, now 43 and retired due to his illness, had worked countless hours in Lower Manhattan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, breathing in toxic dust from the decimated skyscrapers as he looked for survivors and their remains. 

On this 18th anniversary of the attacks, O’Connell feels a sadness for everyone who died that awful day, adding that 9/11 for him is lived “day in and day out.”

“I get daily notifications from the 9/11 community whenever someone else has been newly diagnosed or if we have lost another first responder,” he says. “It’s a constant for me.” 

Michael O'Connell
Courtesy Michael O'Connell

As ceremonies are held Wednesday to remember the nearly 3,000 people killed on Sept. 11, 2001, a growing number of firefighters, police officers, tradesmen and others have gotten sick or died from illnesses related to the toxins in the dust from the burning buildings. 

About 40,000 people have conditions linked to 9/11, including thousands with respiratory illnesses and mental health issues, says Dr. Michael Crane, who directs the World Trade Center Health Program at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in Manhattan. This includes 10,000 people who have developed various cancers associated with exposure to the toxins, with 50 to 80 new cases of cancers associated with 9/11 toxins certified each month.

According to a 2017 study, at least 74 firefighters with the FDNY who worked at the World Trade Center site have contracted sarcoidosis like O’Connell.

Vito Oliva, a retired New York City police lieutenant, got prostate cancer 15 years after working at the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, where he searched through the debris from the collapsed buildings amid fumes and particles.

Six months later, he got another cancer diagnosis: stomach lymphoma. Four NYPD officers he personally supervised, he says, have died from 9/11-related cancers. 

The day brings back memories for Oliva of what he found at the landfill: body parts, licenses, paperwork, wallets and shoes of victims. “It’s upsetting, you think about what those poor people went through,” he says. “Not knowing what was going to happen seconds before those buildings collapsed.”

Vito Oliva
Courtesy Vito Oliva

“The one thing people should remember is that they should never forget,” he says, “That is something that should never be forgotten.”

Oliva feels lucky that both of his cancers were discovered early and have been successfully treated. He urges everyone exposed to the toxic dust to be proactive in getting screened for possible illnesses. 

The results can be alarming, as Michael Guedes, 66, discovered in 2015. The retired New York City police officer was diagnosed with breast cancer, which is rare in men, making up fewer than 1 percent of all breast cancer diagnoses. 

Guedes is one of at least 37 men with breast cancer who worked or went to school in the area of Ground Zero. He also was looking for remains at the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, raking and shoveling through debris that was still covered in dangerous dust.

“I didn’t think about getting sick,” he says. “They said it was fine.”

Michael Guedes
Courtesy Michael Guedes

Now in remission and taking the drug tamoxifen to reduce his risk of recurrence and new disease, Guedes plans to spend Wednesday quietly. 

“I don’t want to celebrate that I am alive when so many are ill and have died,” he says. “I observe a little prayer and light a candle and that’s it.” 

It’s how Caryn Pfeifer hopes to spend the day — away from jarring images of the burning buildings on television and online. The memories are vivid enough for Caryn, whose late husband Ray, a New York City firefighter, developed stage 4 cancer after spending 9 months digging through toxic debris from the destroyed towers at Ground Zero.

“It was a horrible day,” Caryn recalls of September 11, 2001, when she sat with friends and neighbors awaiting news in her Long Island home. Her husband had the day off and rushed to the site after the attacks, where 343 firefighters died that day. 

“Ray called at night to check in and he was hysterical,” Caryn says. “I remember his voice shaking and crying ‘They’re all gone, they’re all gone.’ ”  

Throughout his many many cancer treatments, Ray implored lawmakers in New York and Washington, D.C. — often from his wheelchair and alongside Jon Stewart — to secure benefits for 9/11 responders.

Ray and Caryn Pfeifer
Courtesy of Caryn Pfeifer

In July, after years of gridlock in Congress — and following a public shaming led by Stewart — legislators ensured long-term funding for the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund.

The law is named after Ray, and the late 9/11 responders Luis Alvarez and James Zadroga, both New York City police detectives. 

“They all worked so hard on this,” says Caryn, who lives in Hicksville, New York. “It’s such an honor and we’re so proud. It’s so beautiful.”

In the spring, Caryn spoke at the dedication of the 9/11 Memorial Glade at the World Trade Center site, a tribute to those who are sick or have died from their recovery work. More recently, she attended the dedication of a 9/11 tribute wall in Oyster Bay, Long Island, to honor rescue and recovery workers who are ill or have lost their lives.

“When people write ‘never forget 9/11,’ to me it’s all these people — the 343 firemen who died on 9/11 and everyone else — but these guys are dying, how many a day?” she says.  “It’s all 9/11 and it’s horrible, it’s never going to end.”

 

 

 

 

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