The days were growing long, and the taste of the air became unbearable. I constantly found myself reaching for water, trying to alleviate the oppressive sensation in my throat that felt like it was being clogged with sandpaper. Little did I know, at that time, about the toxic air we were all breathing. The odor permeating the air was horrifying, too disrespectful to even describe. My skin itched relentlessly, and I noticed red rashes on my head and exposed areas after intense showers. It was impossible to rid my body of the remnants of the combined stench and grit. I didn't fully comprehend the effects of the toxins, like asbestos and benzene, littered in the streets from the materials we handled daily. Nevertheless, I pushed forward to carry out the honorable task I had volunteered for.
The hype surrounding that period was extreme, as our collective efforts in the area known as ground zero were met with utmost respect. On numerous occasions, we demanded some form of masks, as the air was thick with smoke and occasionally nauseating. We were repeatedly assured that the air quality had been deemed safe and tested by the authorities. They advised us to consult our employers, assuring us that masks would be provided as soon as possible. However, this promise seemed more like a quick way to silence our concerns in coded language. Instead, we were given cheap hard hats adorned with the company logo, emphasizing their branding, along with work gloves and shirts. Unfortunately, it seemed that the focus was primarily on representing the company, rather than ensuring our protection.
We were told that the United States EPA chief, Christine Todd Whitman, had issued a statement claiming the air quality was safe, and the city could slowly reopen, with Wall Street being the first to do so. At that time, we were confident that they knew more than we did. Like unsuspecting pigs being led to slaughter, we believed and trusted them. If only I had known then what I know now, I would have never continued working there.
The fact of the matter is that the ground zero site burned for 100 consecutive days during our time there. The EPA classified it as a safe air quality environment. However, in the years that followed, over 13,000 first responders and survivors have been diagnosed with respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses. Tragically, more than 1,900 first responders and workers have perished from these illnesses. As one of the afflicted, I can attest that this is a tremendous tragedy for all of us. Many years after leaving ground zero, we began to fall ill unknowingly, unaware of the toxins silently growing within our bodies. It was not until years later, during numerous congressional hearings evaluating these claims, that the truth came to light. Many of us who had direct contact there were slowly being affected by the toxins, impacting our lives, our lifestyles, and, most significantly, our lifespan on this earth. It was disheartening to learn that even individuals like myself, who were not firemen, police, or official rescue personnel, were not initially aware of the 9/11 protection acts that were created for all who were present. I only found out after I moved to Florida in 2003, during a conversation with another worker battling cancer. He mentioned that it had been advertised in New York but not elsewhere. Subsequently, I left New York after losing my job with the communication company I was representing, and peculiarly, soon after, my company's contract with Verizon ended, and we were all let go when the new company declined to rehire any staff from the acquired company. Quite strange, isn't it?
I will delve into the details of my medical journey in my future blogs, as I feel the need to highlight my own ignorance as well as the trickery perpetrated by the government, the companies I worked for, and, most of all, the doctors who were unaware of the true source of these ill effects from working directly at ground zero. I can personally attest to the fact that my life has been severely diminished as a man, a father, and a husband, as I am no longer able to enjoy the simplest pleasures life has to offer while we are here on this earth. Sadly, I have accepted that my lifespan will be shortened due to the diseases I acquired, including PTSD, lung disease, and GERD. For many years, I failed to connect all the dots due to my own ignorance. Yes, some may argue that many first responders and workers received significant compensation, but that was only a small percentage. Workers like myself, without badges of honor, received meager amounts after having to prove our presence at ground zero and facing three denials. I even had to bring my case to court on my own, all the way from Florida, to prove my existence there and the medical illnesses I have been battling since 2008. The determination of whether I can even continue working has been a constant struggle. It is undeniably tragic for anyone who believes that I am simply seeking attention.
The compensation I received was peanuts, less than the price of a used car, for what they called my heroic efforts. I would gladly trade it all in to avoid experiencing what I face on a daily basis. As the year 2023 approaches, the day will come again when we remember the true heroes who sacrificed their souls for one another, bringing immeasurable heartbreak to their families day after day. I want to remember all the "small fries" I worked alongside amidst the thick smoke and the supposedly safe air quality we endured.