Tuesday, October 21, 2003

An Intolerable Outrage: Forgotten Victims of 9/11

$87 billion for Iraq. Meanwhile, back on the home front....
David Rapp used to pride himself on being an active guy. A 250-pound construction worker, he drove piles on the Williamsburg Bridge and on projects all over the city. He could carry a sack of cement on his shoulder as easily as you carry an order of takeout sushi back to your desk. He liked fixing cars. He went crabbing in Jamaica Bay.

Then came September 11. Rapp spent several months at ground zero, drilling steel reinforcements into the “bathtub wall”—the slurry wall between the pit and the Hudson River that prevented the water from flooding the area.

Rapp’s illness began with a faint dizziness and shortness of breath, but it steadily got worse. Before long, he was useless to his former employers. They laid him off. Now Rapp is very, very sick. He’s suffering from severe pulmonary disease—meaning he never gets enough air. He has frequent respiratory infections. He’s on twelve medicines. He carries an oxygen tank wherever he goes. “I just went straight down,” Rapp says, his voice somewhere between a whisper and a rasp. “It’s real depressing.”


Rapp is one of perhaps thousands of people who are not cops or firefighters but who toiled at ground zero and are now sick, even disabled, from asthma, chronic infections, and other respiratory illnesses. These conditions, some experts maintain, were caused by the “crud”—the mixture of dust, ash, fumes from burning plastic, pulverized concrete, and vaporized human remains around ground zero.

Unlike the cops and firefighters whose heroism—and subsequent illnesses—have gotten huge amounts of attention, these other workers lack the medical safety net and pension enjoyed by the guys in uniforms. So they are scrambling for treatment in all kinds of ways. Some are on waiting lists for financially strapped private programs. Others are still battling for workers’ comp. Still others are defying doctors’ orders and working—because with a job comes health insurance. While some have found temporary treatment, they all share an uncertain future, with no guarantee that they’ll get the long-term care they’ll need.

The reason for this is not hard to divine. Two years have passed since the attacks, and there has been no comprehensive effort by the federal government to treat people who got sick helping out at ground zero. Incredibly, thousands of people are ill from a national disaster, and the federal government is AWOL.