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Health Problems of 9/11 Rescuers in New York Continue Five Years After Terrorist Attack

The fifth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York has focused attention on the plight of emergency personnel who went to the site of the demolished World Trade Center towers. As VOA's Melinda Smith reports, a large health study of the thousands of workers at Ground Zero shows many with chronic respiratory ailments.

"It was like a black cloud over that whole area and you couldn't see ten feet [three meters] in front of you," remembers John Walcott.

"I collapsed,” says Robert Ryan of his experience. “I couldn't get any air into my lungs and I was...I went...I went into a panic."

John Walcott and Robert Ryan are among the thousands of first responders who carry the burden of that tragedy, five years later. Both men plunged into the heavy gray smoke to rescue others. Robert Ryan says he was later forced to leave the fire department because of his illness. His lungs are now so damaged he says he can barely play sports with his son:

"After about ten minutes, I always have to stop, catch my breath, and it's at the point now,” Ryan tells us, “and he'll stop and say, 'Are you okay, Daddy? Do you need to stop?' "
The toxic dust from the World Trade Center has affected almost 70 percent of the 10,000 rescuers at the site, as well as workers who hauled the debris away to a landfill. A recent study found many inhaled heavy metals such as nickel, titanium and cadmium into their lungs. Sixty percent of those with respiratory illness had not shown symptoms of the disease before 9/11.

Pneumonia was a common diagnosis in the first six months after the tragedy. Dr. Robin Herbert directs the World Trade Center medical monitoring program. "Somebody has to take responsibility and make sure these folks get the care they need."

Officials from the state of New York and the U.S. government have pledged $52 million to pay for treatment of these workers. Dr. Herbert says that's not enough:

"My worry is that money will be gone in a year, and what happens then?" she asks.

Many of the victims are skeptical about how much help they will eventually receive. They point to assurances by former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who led New York City's rescue effort:

"The air quality is safe and acceptable," said the mayor at the time.

Dr. Robin Herbert disagrees. "What we saw, in those first two months, was really very startling and very, very disturbing. You could see that there were these chemical burns."

A month after the terrorist attacks, a health department memo showed internal disagreement about the quality of air at the site. There was reportedly pressure to reopen streets from merchants and business owners in the neighborhood. At the same time, environmental officials expressed concern about the toxic air.

Thousands of sick workers are now questioning who will pay for their continuing medical care and have filed a lawsuit against the city government and contractors who hired them. The current mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg says the health study does not prove a direct link to conditions at the site:

"There is no way to tell for sure...and you have to be very careful. If I say I've got something because of this, it's just not the way science works."

Former firefighter Robert Ryan disagrees. "Every fireman, cop that went down there...nobody thought about your own safety. That's not what we do. I'm just asking for a little help. A little help getting by every day."

Other health problems include depression, and post-traumatic stress. Medical experts plan to release another study of Ground Zero's effect on rescuers' mental health in the near future.