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Who Failed The Ground Zero Workers?

Who Failed The Ground Zero Workers?

In the weeks leading up to President Obama’s signing of the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act Sunday, there was a lot of anger on the part of former Ground Zero first responders, workers and their supporters against politicians who were slow in supporting it or who opposed it.

But with the 10th anniversary of the catastrophe and recovery approaching, and with an estimated 60,000 people believed to be sick from exposure to toxins in the area, there is rarely any critical look back at those terrible months when workers combed the rubble looking for survivors or, ultimately, bodies, as fires still burned and clouds of toxic dust had yet to settle.

Wayne Barrett and Dan Collins’ excellent investigative work, "The Grand Illusion: The Untold Story of Rudy Giuliani and 9/11" is an exception, delving deep into the decisions at City Hall before and after the terrorist attack and their repercussions.

Relying on extensive interviews, public records and an examination of the daily journal of then-fire commissioner Thomas Van Essen, Barrett and Collins surmise that experts were telling city officials immediately after the collapse that there was almost no chance of survivors being pulled out of the rubble — a prediction that proved sadly true after the second day — but the operation was never shifted from a rescue to a recovery operation — which would have changed procedures.

"Of all the could-have and should-have analyses of what happened in Lower Manhattan after the World Trade Center towers fell, very few critics have faulted the city for failing to make the rescuers observe proper health and safety procedures on those first desperate days," wrote the authors.

They note that Giuliani had the legal authority as well as the iconic status to persuade the workers to "put the health of the thousands at the pile ahead of the hunt for the remains of those already lost." Perhaps out of well-intentioned concern that the firemen and other workers weren’t ready to hear the awful truth, the mayor in his final months of office declined to do so, even as evidence mounted that the environment around the trade center was dangerously toxic.

Suggesting that the mayor could have sent an important message by featuring health experts at his many briefings to assess the air quality or at least worn a respirator mask when he visited the site himself, Barrett and Collins found that he did the opposite, striving instead to send the message instead that Lower Manhattan was open for business.

People who work on large job sites can tell you that unless safety precautions are mandatory — meaning you will be removed from the site for infractions — many workers will eschew masks, gloves or goggles out of misguided toughness, laziness or a belief that they can do the job faster and better without them. At a site as toxic as ground zero, there should have been zero tolerance for laxity.

Back in 2006, when the book was published, there was far less certainty than there is today about the effects of the recovery on ground zero workers, and James Zadroga, the police officer for whom the bill was named who was the first person deemed to have died from exposure to 9/11 toxins, was still alive at the time it was written.

But even then, the authors found a warning from epidemiologist Dr. Philip Landrigan of Mount Sinai Hospital, who, in a 2002 study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine on worker health and safety after Sept. 11, that because of the lack of protective gear at the site "the result will almost certainly be unnecessary disease and death."

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