In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, more than 50,000 rescue and recovery workers converged at the World Trade Center. Among them were the 62 members of Missouri’s FEMA Urban Search and Rescue task force.
The experience at ground zero made many workers sick, with health problems ranging from asthma to post-traumatic stress disorder.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Véronique LaCapra has this report about how the members of Missouri’s rescue team are doing.
"Everything was just pulverized to dust."
When the twin towers of the World Trade Center came down, more than a million tons of concrete, steel and glass collapsed into a debris pile about seven stories high and covering over fifteen acres.
Deep inside the pile fires burned, releasing smoke and toxic chemicals. Outside, the dust was overwhelming.
“Everything was so finely ground up,” Rescue specialist Mark Stillpass said. He was expecting to lift and move big pieces of concrete and other heavy debris to reach victims. He says other than the massive, twisted steel beams that had to be cut and dragged away by machines, at the World Trade Center site, there was almost nothing solid left.
“There was steel, dust and paper is what I remember," Stillpass said. "Imagine how much furniture was in those buildings. I didn’t see any furniture. It was ground up. Everything was just pulverized to dust.”
That dust was everywhere. It filled the air like snow, covering every surface with inches of fine gray powder. In it and the fumes from the pile were asbestos, PCBs, dioxins, and other toxic substances. The Missouri task force went several days before getting access to respirators.
But even without them, some team members seem to have come out OK.
Tuff is a twelve-and-a-half-year-old chocolate lab. She was one of four search and rescue dogs from Missouri deployed to the World Trade Center. Their job was to go down into the debris pile and try to find survivors. Tuff’s handler, Tom Andert, says many people didn’t realize what the dogs were capable of.
“The fire chief that was there was very concerned that she was going to take off," Andert said, talking about Tuff. "She disappeared completely from the pile, and came up a long ways away somewhere else, and he was impressed, you know. She knew what she was supposed to do.”
Andert says that after ten days working in the dust and smoke of the pile with the rest of the Missouri team, Tuff came home with no health problems. In fact, a study of almost 100 dogs that worked at the World Trade Center site found that none of them got sick from breathing the contaminated air.
"They call it the New York cough, the World Trade Center cough."
Some of their human counterparts weren’t so lucky. Rescue squad officer Steve Rinehart came back from ground zero with a now well-known symptom.
“They call it the New York cough, the World Trade Center cough, it’s just a little cough," Rinehart said. "I had that for probably a year and a half afterwards. I still have a little bit of it. It definitely had an impact on my sinuses. I have more frequent sinus infections than I ever had before.”
Working on the pile took its toll in other ways. Rescue technician William Matzker says it was hard not finding any survivors.
“There were a number of us including myself that did suffer from depression after this," Matzker said. "You know a lot of us had to go to the doctor, get on medication…it took me in the area of about four years to get over it.”
Matzker and Rinehart are not alone. Over the past decade, researchers have studied the health of tens of thousands of World Trade Center workers. They’ve found a wide range of physical and psychological health problems, including higher cancer rates in New York City firefighters.
Workers who got to the site early and stayed the longest are at highest risk.
Missouri’s search and rescue workers arrived the day after 9/11 and stayed for just ten days.
Even so, says Dr. Michael Crane, they could still be at risk. Crane, who directs the World Trade Center Health Program at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, says Missouri team members should get checked out by a doctor on a regular basis – even if they feel healthy.
“These guys had significant exposure. And they should be seen,” Crane said.
Crane says they can get those check-ups for free through the World Trade Center Health Program. He adds that the more we know about the health of all the people exposed to the World Trade Center site, the more we can help the ones who need it.
In their own words: Missouri firefighters remember 9/11
When the twin towers fell on Sept. 11, the 62 members of Missouri’s FEMA Urban Search and Rescue task force were called into action. They loaded up their gear, boarded C-130 military airplanes, and flew to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey.
It was the afternoon of Sept. 12, 2001, by the time the Missouri workers got to downtown Manhattan. They spent the next ten days searching the giant debris pile that had been the World Trade Center.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Véronique LaCapra sat down with some Maryland Heights firefighters who were part of that task force and recorded their memories of the days following 9/11.
In the order that you will hear them for the first time, they are: firefighter/paramedic Chris Moore; Assistant Chief Steve Rinehart; Captain William Matzker; Captain Mark Stillpass; and, Captain John Rieth.
Please Note: This audio may be disturbing for some listeners.