For this tenth anniversary, I am blogging (for the last time) about my personal experience on that day.
First, some caveats:
I agree with many others that there are at least 10 more important things that have happened over the past decade. My personal list would prioritize climate change and other environmental destruction as the most important global issue, and wage stagnation and inequality as our most important domestic issue. Single Payer health insurance, “Expanded and Improved Medicare for All" would be nice. Middle East peace, with a viable independent Palestinian state and a democratic Israel, both with internationally recognized accepted and agreed upon borders would be nice too.
It would have been better for the country and the world if the Bush’s had not stolen the election by stripping Democratic voters out of the Florida election rolls. A Gore administration would likely have prevented 9-11. Remember that the Clinton-Gore administration had prioritized anti-terrorism and Al Qaeda. As Richard Clarke and others have pointed out, Bush deliberately took anti-terrorism off the top 10 priority list, for knee-jerk partisan thoughtless reasons (i.e. if Clinton was for it, we are against it). A Gore administration would likely have prevented 9-11 from happening. A Gore administration would not have lied their way into the war in Iraq, the Muslim nation with just about the least connection to Bin Laden. I still consider the entire George W. Bush administration to have been illegitimate.
My 9/11 and the first three weeks:
As a physician and government public health doctor, whose office is four diagonal blocks from the World Trade Center, and who watched the first plane go in from our 38th floor office, I was what one might call a secondary responder on 9/11. After our Federal building was evacuated, I initially walked in the opposite direction, uptown a little ways to the late lamented St Vincent’s Hospital on 11th Street. As I walked away, like many others, I watched as the towers fell. At about noon on 9/11 I had linked up with some other health care workers, and walked down to a first aid station that was set up in Stuyvesant High School, under the Tribeca Bridge at the Corner of West and Chambers.
As it became increasingly apparent that there was very little first aid to be offered -- since mostly everybody in the WTC and vicinity had either died outright, or walked away with minimal injury, and the few in between had been taken to hospital already -- our attention turned to the firemen and other responders going in. That first day we did not have any respirators for the construction (or as I prefer to put it given what they were already doing, deconstruction workers). The firefighters of course had their own. One of things I started doing later that first afternoon was standing on the corner of Chambers and West, so when the trucks slowed to make the turn, I climbed up and handed them surgical facemasks. They are not that helpful, keeping out only the largest particles, but it was all we had that first day and night. Over the next three weeks I alternated between doing eye-washing (using IV saline solution to wash away the irritation and foreign bodies the workers routinely came off the pile (and some other remedial aid) from a site 2-3 blocks away from ground zero (or as we referred to it then "the pile"; doing fitting and dispensing of real respirators right on the pile site; and some administrative work at the emergency operations center (EOC) which was set up at the Hudson River Piers further uptown (since Giuliani had foolishly, against expert advice, but because of political payoffs, insisted on putting the EOC in the predicted target of the WTC).
My main memories:
The eerie quiet and the layer of grey dust that was everywhere from at least Canal Street on down. It did not go away until a heavy rain came much later. In addition to the lack of the usual pedestrian and street traffic noise, the sound dampening effect of that layer of dust contributed to the quietude around ground zero.
Also, despite all my official credentialing for being there, I still had to get off from the train several stations beforehand and walk in from the frozen zone perimeter. And the silence on the walk in. And the camaraderie once there.
By bizarre morbid coincidence, a close friend and colleague at work, an elderly woman who had done fine work supporting the National Health Service Corps over for 30 years, had died suddenly and unexpectedly on 9/10 of a heart attack. In the midst of the all the national (and international) mourning and attention paid to those who died in the terrorist attack, who was to mourn and publicly acknowledge the unrelated plain and simple heart attack death of an elderly government "bureaucrat"? Well despite our dispersion from our closed workplace, despite being spread across all the boroughs and four states, all her fellow workers made it to the funeral and service just a couple days after 9/11. I was glad her story (and ours of taking time to mourn her in the midst of everything else), made it into a latter story in the Village Voice.
Given that my professional work related to respirator distribution to the workers on the pile, and by virtue of my being there and hence in the worker registry (I am fine) I do have some thoughts on the health of the workers and residents at and around ground zero. File the following under the category of "many things are true at once":
I have to note, that despite our handing out respirators to most, perhaps almost all of the workers after things got better organized, it is also true that most of them did not wear them consistently. Despite our (health care workers on the site) mantra at the time of "if you get sick or injured, the terrorists win so please wear the masks and be careful out there", the truth was also that they were almost impossible to wear while getting the work done. They were basic models that filtered the air just fine, but of course had no walkie-talkie, bullhorn or radio inside. So not only were they hot and uncomfortable, especially for the firemen, cops and construction workers doing physically laborious work on the pile (as opposed to me just standing there at the health tent), but there was no way to communicate while wearing them. So it is undertandable why they were so frequently removed. Especially because managment, be it the employers or the government officials, were pushing for speed and and not safety.
It is also true that at the political level, city and federal, the claims at the time that the air was safe was obviously a lie. While I work in a different area of public health, I had colleagues at the time (at the lower professional career level) in environmental and occupational health, who were saying the same thing. Obviously the air, with that strong a smell is unsafe. Obviously, with that amount of complex chemicals being burned -- gases and particulates of various sizes and compositions -- going into the air, it is not safe. And by the way, all the talk at the time about their not being much asbestos was a deliberate distraction, from the obviously toxic stew that was present.
It is also true that there are legitimate issues around causality, and multiple causality, in any given case of 9/11 related illness, and for the cohort exposed persons overall. Sorting that out is exactly what we medical epidemiologists do, and have been doing as profession for over a hundred years. The 9/11 workers situation is similar to the issue around poorly protected coal miners and asbestos workers, who have (or used to have) high rates of tobacco use. How much of the illness is from the occupational exposure, and how much from other causes? But just as there is no question as to the fact that many coal miners and asbestos workers got sick and died from their exposure at work, there is absolutely no question whatsoever that many people are getting sick, and some have died, because of 9/11 related exposure. None.
Three weeks after 9/11, I went to my uncle's wedding in North Carolina and a previously planned family vacation.
By the time we came back, my office was beginning to re-open. Serving my country by helping the otherwise medically underserved.
Life and the Universe goes on.