Another year has come and gone, and we firefighters have paused to remember the brave 343 who gave their lives on that spectacularly horrific morning in Manhattan. We re-live the nightmare by peering at images from that crisp morning, reading gut-wrenching stories from survivor families, and admiring the ceremonies, plaques, and walls of remembrance.
And, even without the t-shirts, helmet stickers and seemingly parroted rote mantras, it isn’t it utterly obvious that we will all “never forget?”
But, are some of us missing something here?
We lost 343 on September 11, 2001. But are you aware that the number lost keeps growing every day to the point where we have lost over another thousand precious lives of first responders who went to work at the World Trade Center immediately following the disaster?
In fact, as of August 2003, an additional 1,140 lives have been lost to cancers linked to their heroic actions in the days and weeks that followed while the fires burned and toxic smoke hovered over everyone. My math brings the running total from the morning of 9/11 through last month to 1,483.
From an article in yesterday’s New York Daily News:
“Sadly enough, I am here just two months, and I have identified a dozen new cancer cases, and I have another 25 patients whose diagnostic test results are pending.” -Tina Engel, an oncology nurse at North Shore Hospital’s WTC clinic in Queens
And with all the hype we hear from the conspiracy theorists claiming our government is responsible for the September 11 attacks, nary a peep about the responsibility our federal government has for all the illness and death that followed.
You may remember as I vividly do, within days after the towers fell, former EPA head Christie Whitman declared that the air in Manhattan is "safe to breathe" and the water is "safe to drink". As a trained firefighter, I had a feeling this was bullshit.
We now know that it was.
You may be surprised to know that first responders were ordered NOT to use protective gear in Manhattan, yet at the Pentagon, anyone NOT wearing full hazmat protective suits were ordered off the crash site.
"The misleading communications by civic leaders and their failure to insist on respiratory protection in the days, weeks and months after the initial rescue operation ended undoubtedly contributed and will continue to contribute to sickness in the rescue and recovery workers and in the citizens of Lower Manhattan," -Dr Philip J. Landrigan, chairman of the Department of Community and Preventative Medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. Mount Sinai has screened more than 25,000 Ground Zero responders for illnesses suspected of being related to the dust and treated many of them.
Federal officials also opted not to sound alarms even after tests registered unprecedented levels of dioxin at and around ground zero, documents obtained through freedom of information requests filed by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) revealed.
Dioxin, a pollutant that can cause cancer, damage the immune system and lead to developmental problems, is most harmful when absorbed through food. But it can also cause harm when inhaled.
OSHA discussed the alarming test results internally: "Just received a sample taken at the WTC (in or near the plume I believe)," an OSHA employee wrote in an October 2001 email to John Henshaw, the agency's administrator. "The result was very high … EPA is saying it is one of the highest levels they have ever seen." The level was about 1,000 times higher than normal for dioxin.
Despite the anguishing fact that someone should be held liable- both civilly and criminally in my mind- for the illness and deaths of hundreds more, that doesn’t help the thousands who are still suffering for the decisions made that day.
What can be done?
We need to pay more attention to those thousands of first responders who performed admirably and are just now paying the price. They did what they thought was right. The horror that hit us 12 years ago did not end when the Towers came tumbling down, nor did it end every year we toll the bells, read the names, cry the tears.
It keeps on killing us. The attack on America continues to this day.
It is tragic that more of us Americans, more of us Brothers and Sisters, aren’t screaming loudly in support for these forgotten victims at the very time we mourn our dead from that day. We owe it to them- indeed we owe it to ourselves as Americans- to move beyond the number 343 and realize the price that continues to be paid by hundreds, perhaps thousands in years to come, of our Brothers and Sisters years after most of us thinks it is over.
It is right that we do this.
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