As a first responder at Ground Zero, Ken George spent up to 16 hours a day tunnelling through the rubble of the World Trade Centre searching for survivors – and, for six months afterwards, recovering corpses and body parts.
Every day as he arrived for his 12 to 16-hour shift, families would thrust photographs of their missing loved ones into his hands and beg him to look out for them. He would tuck the pictures into his helmet, put on his face mask and – despite it clogging almost immediately with dust – set to work.
“I’d crawl 25ft in a space the width of a casket (coffin) and there’d be another 25ft to go and I could feel trucks rumbling over me and debris falling in my face and the darkness closing in and I’d ask myself ‘Should I go the extra distance?’ But I went, because I’d want someone to do that for my kid,” he said.
In the 14 years since the September 11 terrorist attacks, George and thousands of others like him – firefighters, police officers, and city workers who toiled for days on the rescue effort and for months and years afterwards on the recovery – have had to fight for the US government to go the distance for them.
More than 33,000 first responders, survivors and city residents now have illnesses – or are still struggling with injuries. They include 4,385 cases of cancer – 950 of them within the New York Fire Department alone – according to the government’s Centres for Disease Control. More police officers have died of related illnesses in the last 14 years than died on the day.
Post-traumatic stress disorder and multiple chronic conditions related to the toxins and contaminants from the dust and rubble, such as obstructive lung disease, asthma, gastro-esophageal reflux disease, heart disease, have also taken a massive toll.
More than 70,000 people are currently enrolled in a programme set up by the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, eventually passed by Congress in 2010 and named in memory of a New York police officer who was the first to die of “black lung” caused by the dust. It provides compensation and treatment costs of those diagnosed, and medical monitoring for those at risk of developing 9/11-related illnesses.
But the legislation expires in October and the fund it established will run out next year. First responders and survivors are now having to fight for its renewal.
Mr George, 51, takes 30 prescription medications a day and has granulated glass in his lungs. He has had two tumours removed from his oesophagus, and suffers from heart problems, PTSD and respiratory illness that causes him to wake in the night gasping for breath. “First responders are dying like flies. America can spend billions of dollars to take care of other countries; why should we have to worry about whether it will take care of us?” he said.
John Feal, an Army veteran and demolition expert who lost half his foot when an 8,000lb metal beam fell on him as he worked in the wreckage of the Twin Towers, has been to 136 funerals in the last five years alone. He founded the Fealgood Foundation, an advocacy organisation that helped lead the campaign that got the Zadroga Act passed and is now pushing for its indefinite renewal.
“We lost 2,751 innocent lives on 9/11 but we are going to outnumber them one day…It’s probably going to be another 20, 30, 40 years that anyone will ever have an idea of the true magnitude of this…At Ground Zero, no one had a Hazmat suit; it was jeans and T-shirts and baseball caps and yet we were working in a toxic soup,” he said.
Glen Klein, formerly a member of New York Police Department’s Emergency Services Unit – an elite corps comprising the force’s most hardcore and highly trained officers – is now on medication for PTSD and has been hospitalised six times. He suffers from gastro-esophageal and stomach problems that have brought on pains so acute that they brought him to his knees, pre-cancerous colon polyps, asthma and lung damage.
He worked at ‘The Pile’ – the name given to the World Trade Centre wreckage – from the day of the attacks to the following June, searching for human remains and personal effects such as jewellery and identity cards. He lost 14 of his immediate colleagues on 9/11 and has seen scores fall sick or die since – cancers, lung disease, immune system disorders.
“The toll’s going up drastically. I’ve lost numerous friends to the kinds of cancer you just don’t see in those age categories in those numbers – extremely aggressive types of cancer that within six months of being diagnosed, you’re dead. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist or a surgeon to see the common link,” he said. “A lot of us know that our lives have been shortened by doing what we did.”