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9/11 Responders Speak Out on Government Failure to Address Environmental, Health Impact of World Trade Center Collapse

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Two 9/11 responders join us to talk about the government’s neglect of the thousands of people who volunteered for the Ground Zero rescue and recovery effort. Trained emergency medical technician Regina Cervantes is featured in Michael Moore’s latest documentary SiCKO and traveled to Cuba for medical treatment. Leading advocate John Feal is president of the FealGood Foundation that assists 9/11 responders who have been denied government benefits. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: On Wednesday, Senator Clinton announced a subcommittee proposal requesting $55 million for precisely such a program that would screen and treat all individuals exposed to Ground Zero dust. Of the thousands of ailing 9/11 responders who have been getting sicker and sicker while waiting for treatment and benefits, does this hold any promise?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, to find out, we’re joined today by two 9/11 responders. John Feal was a demolition supervisor who was one of the many volunteers helping with the recovery operation at Ground Zero. After a week of working in the toxic ruins, his foot was crushed by an eight-ton steel beam. He soon began to suffer serious respiratory illnesses, but did not qualify for the 9/11 relief fund. John is one the leading and most passionate advocates for 9/11 first responders. He’s president of the FealGood Foundation that assists 9/11 responders who have been denied government benefits.

Regina Cervantes is a trained emergency medical technician. She rushed to Ground Zero on September 11, but suffered respiratory failure after three days. Regina and her two children all suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and moved to Oklahoma City. Regina is featured in Michael Moore’s latest film SiCKO. Michael Moore took her to Cuba for medical treatment.

John Feal and Regina Cervantes join us now in Washington, D.C. Welcome to Democracy Now. Regina, let’s begin with you. Why are you in Washington?

REGINA CERVANTES: Well, we came to hopefully have an impact on the elected officials when they viewed the film last night and hoped to advocate for the more than 50,000 responders who are now sick as a result of the toxic contamination.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us what happened to you on September 11. Where were you? How did you end up at Ground Zero?

REGINA CERVANTES: I was transported by the New York Fire Department to Shea Stadium, where I organized the medical component of the staging, and then I was transported on the first team out of there down to Ground Zero. My very first task at Ground Zero was assisting to help put Father Mychal Judge in an ambulance to go to the morgue. I restaged triage, and I continued to treat rescue workers and injured people at the scene until after 9:00 that evening.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, Father Mychal Judge, the fire chaplain who died on September 11, extremely popular in New York. So, Reggie, what happened then?

REGINA CERVANTES: I went home, and I returned on the 13th and then on the 14th. And by the 14th, my airway was so burned I could barely speak. I sought medical care on that Saturday, and I’ve struggled ever since to catch my breath when I walk, and I have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, gastroesophageal reflux disease, chronic asthma, bronchitis, sinusitis, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Regina, what kind of protection did you get in those early days from either the Fire Department or other emergency officials on the scene?

REGINA CERVANTES: I received nothing. On the 13th, I received a hard hat on the pier on the West Side prior to going in. I had never owned a hard hat before. I had my jump bag, my gear from my home, when I left on the 11th, and I had a dust mask in there, and I wore that for a few hours earlier on 9/11, but other than that, when it was too wet from the moisture from breathing and too clogged on the other side from the dust, I had to discard it. And then it was just a matter of continuously inhaling and gasping. And when you opened your mouth, you ingested the dust and the smoke. So there was no — nobody dispensed any equipment to us.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And once you got sick, what was the response among the fire officials?

REGINA CERVANTES: Well, as a volunteer emergency medical technician, I fell outside the realm of organized Fire Department or EMS. As a volunteer, you know, basically we’ve been on our own ever since. No help.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to John Feal for a minute, John Feal, who heads the FealGood Foundation. Tell us where you were on September 11 and what happened afterwards, John.

JOHN FEAL: Well, Amy, I just want to say thank you to you and Juan for having us on the show. In the 9/11 community, as journalists, you guys are a step above the rest. We put you guys at a high level, because you and Juan have really done a great job, and we’re humbled to be here today.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I also want to just say it’s Juan who’s done really the leading work, the crusading work, for the New York Daily News

JOHN FEAL: Yeah, he’s a phenomenal man.

AMY GOODMAN: — and here on Democracy Now!, bringing attention well before these hearings, right after 9/11, to the basically lies that were being told about the safety of the environment at Ground Zero.

JOHN FEAL: I was — to answer your question, I was up in Nanuet when the towers came down, and then the following day I went to Ground Zero. I got hurt on the 17th of September. I spent five days there, and I never once wore a mask, nor did anybody ever say, “Hey, John, put on this mask.” But every day I was there, I said somebody would get hurt, and it wound up being me. And it was an unsafe workplace.

And looking back now, although it altered my life — and, listen, you know, 11 weeks in the hospital changes anybody’s life — but I don’t look negative about it anymore. I think about solutions and problem solving and what we could do now to correct a problem that’s lingered for six years. But that starts at the top. And the lack of compassion in helping brave souls like Reggie and the thousands others — I mean, unless you’re a fan of mass murder or genocide, you’ve got to correct this now, because this is becoming catastrophic.

We’re here in Washington today, and we were helping promote Michael Moore’s movie SiCKO, and that’s Americans at large, but there’s also that small segment of 9/11 responders. And with power — because we are in Washington, and this is where all the power is — comes responsibility. And they’re not — as elected officials, you’re elected to serve and protect. And I’m going to say 90 percent of our country’s leaders are not serving and protecting. And more and more 9/11 heroes are dying because of that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, John Feal and Regina Cervantes, we’re going to break, but we’re going to come back. We’re also going to show that clip, where Michael Moore stands with the three 9/11 responders, including Reggie, as he tries to get into Guantanamo to get healthcare for the 9/11 first responders. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Regina Cervantes, a trained emergency medical technician. She’s featured in Michael Moore’s film SiCKO, went to Cuba with him for medical treatment. After 9/11, she moved with her kids to Oklahoma City for the post-traumatic stress clinic that is there. John Feal also with us, leading advocate for 9/11 responders. They’re both in Washington, having spoken with congressmembers. He runs the FealGood Foundation. John, can you tell us how you crushed your foot after September 11?

JOHN FEAL: On September 17, about 8,000 pounds of steel crushed my left foot. I spent two weeks in the hospital at Bellevue, where I developed gangrene. Then I spent the next nine weeks at North Shore University in Plainview fighting gangrene, where I became septic. I eventually lost half of my foot. And since then, I’ve had about — in the hospital and to date, I’ve had about 30 surgeries on both feet, because the heels first, plantar fasciitis, the original injury. I haven’t taken a pill in over three years. I haven’t taken a painkiller. My acid reflux, my gerd, I haven’t taken a pill for that. I’ve done home remedy, where I’m taking apple cider vinegar, and it’s gone away. I have been diagnosed by four doctors with post-traumatic. I have yet to take a pill for it. And now I’m in the process of donating a kidney to a volunteer firefighter. And I will never take another pill nor swallow any more anything, because I swallowed enough chemicals for those five days to last a lifetime.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait, John. I saw you at the SiCKO sneak preview that Michael Moore did in New York on Sunday, on Father’s Day, for 9/11 responders like you.

JOHN FEAL: Yes, ma’am.

AMY GOODMAN: And I saw the man stand up, who I believe you’re giving that kidney to. Is that right?

JOHN FEAL: That’s correct, ma’am.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait. Could you explain — what are you doing? And who is he?

JOHN FEAL: He went to my website back in September. I get emails all the time from people across the country. And he said, “I think what you’re doing for 9/11 responders is a beautiful thing. By the way, can you link me to your website, because I’m on the kidney donor transplant list?” And I said, “No, I’m not going to link you. You could just have mine.” And he thought it was a cruel joke. But after two or three days of convincing him I was serious, we made an appointment at Columbia Presbyterian here in Manhattan. And it was a one-in-30,000 chance that we would be a match, and I should have played Lotto that day, Amy, because we’re a match. And it’s been a series of tests ever since, and I’ve passed every test now. I’m 100 percent to go. I have taken care of my body and my mind and trained myself to help these 9/11 responders. Although he wasn’t at 9/11, he would have been. And he was sick. And he’s got a 12-year-old son, and he wants to see this kid grow up, get married and graduate college. And I’m going to help him do that. And all these people I help, it’s just a small reflection of the real person I am. I don’t need 9/11 to know right from wrong. I needed 9/11 to show everybody what my mother taught me, and that’s to help people that are less fortunate.

JUAN GONZALEZ: John, I’d like to get back to those first days at Ground Zero, because there were, like yourself, thousands of other ordinary New Yorkers and people in the metropolitan area from around the country who volunteered, who were not paid workers or the Fire Department or the Police Department. Were you registered at all by the city in any kind of ongoing list of volunteer workers? How was your treatment dealt with once you became injured on the site? Could you talk a little bit about that?

JOHN FEAL: Yeah. Well, Juan, I was — although I was a volunteer, I was also paid. I was paid for those five days I was there, which is pretty comical, because I got a check while I was in the hospital. But I was pretty drugged up, so… I was enrolled in Mount Sinai, like everybody else. I didn’t qualify for the September 11th fund, because of the time frame of my injury. And I got a letter from Ken Feinberg, and he said, “Although your injuries were life-threatening and catastrophic, you don’t qualify, because of the time frame.” They cut it off after 96 hours. I got hurt at like 120-something hours. And last time I checked, I was the worst injury at Ground Zero for the time I stayed in hospital and the amount of surgeries I had.

And I find — it was like an insult, but I’m kind of glad, because you would have had to sign a waiver, and then you couldn’t have a lawsuit. You know, so my lawsuit is still pending. And I hopefully one day all 9/11 responders win their lawsuits. But I’ve already been on TV saying I will take a third of my lawsuit, and I will give it to the foundation to give to 9/11 responders, because a lot of guys, for the next 20, 30 years before they die, are going to suffer. And the federal government is sitting idle, and the lack of compassion in this country, while we poop on each other, is getting out of hand. And I hope somebody grows a set of Abe Lincolns here in Washington and really takes this by the — and runs and runs with it. And if you have to go see SiCKO to appreciate what’s really wrong with the healthcare system in the United States, then somebody really needs to step up.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, as you know, there was the hearings yesterday in the Senate, and on Monday in the House of Representatives, Christie Todd Whitman will finally have to be called to task directly to explain what the EPA did on 9/11. Congressman Jerrold Nadler will be questioning her and the head of OSHA — the former head of OSHA, as well. But when you see Christie Todd Whitman or some of these officials, or Rudy Giuliani now going around the country as the hero of 9/11, what are your thoughts?

JOHN FEAL: Well, Juan, Christie Todd Whitman should be in jail for manslaughter. Every time a 9/11 responder dies, she should get a manslaughter conviction. Rudy Giuliani is not a hero for standing on a pile with a bullhorn. I’m sorry. I’m not trying to be disrespectful, Mr. Giuliani, but you couldn’t help the people of New York; how are you going to help the people of the country when you run for president? And that’s just my opinion, but that’s — in the 9/11 community, most people feel that way.

REGINA CERVANTES: He’s ignored us ever since, I mean.

AMY GOODMAN: Regina Cervantes, the trained emergency medical technician who is in Washington, D.C, with John Feal. Reggie?

REGINA CERVANTES: After 9/11, he stood and he made his speeches with his bullhorn, and ever since, he’s ignored every single one of us. I attempted to speak with him while he was campaigning and attending the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, and his security force kept us apart. He went and he did his photo opportunities with the small children who survived the bombing, but he ignored the 9/11 community that was there participating in an exchange. He ignored me. His staff would not allow us access to him. And, you know, this is a sign of how he’s going to be if he gets into office.

AMY GOODMAN: Reggie, I wanted to play that trailer of Michael Moore’s film SiCKO in which you’re featured. This is the trailer for Michael’s film about healthcare in this country, and in it, you see Michael trying to get to Guantanamo with Reggie and two other 9/11 responders.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We’ve got an issue in America: Too many good docs are getting out of business. Too many Ob/Gyns aren’t able to practice their love with women all across this country.

NARRATOR: When Michael Moore decided to make a movie on the healthcare industry, top-level executives were on the defensive. What were they hiding?

SECURITY GUARD: That’s not on, right?



UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The intent is to maximize profits.

MICHAEL MOORE: If you denied more people healthcare, you got a bonus?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: When you do not spend money on somebody, it’s a savings to the company.

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: I want America to have the finest healthcare in the world.

MICHAEL MOORE: Four healthcare lobbyists for every member of Congress. Here’s what it cost to buy these men, and this woman, this guy and this guy.

And the United States slipped to 37 in healthcare around the world, just slightly ahead of Slovenia.

DR. LINDA PEENO: I denied a man a necessary operation and thus caused his death. This secured my reputation, and it ensured my continued advancement in the healthcare field.

NARRATOR: In the world’s richest country.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I work three jobs.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: You work three jobs?


PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Uniquely American, isn’t it? That is fantastic!

NARRATOR: Laughter isn’t the best medicine.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I get a bill from my insurance company telling me that the ambulance ride wasn’t pre-approved. I don’t know when I was supposed to pre-approve it — after I gained consciousness in the car, before I got in the ambulance?

NARRATOR: It’s the only medicine.

MICHAEL MOORE: There was actually one place on American soil that had free universal healthcare.

Which way to Guantanamo Bay?

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER: Detainees representing a threat to our national security are given access to top-notch medical facilities.

MICHAEL MOORE: Permission to enter. I have three 9/11 rescue workers. They just want some medical attention, the same kind that the evil-doers are getting. Hello?

NARRATOR: Michael Moore’s SiCKO.

AMY GOODMAN: That is SiCKO. And as Michael Moore is shouting “Hello? Hello?” at the tower at Guantanamo, he is standing next to three 9/11 first responders that he brought to Cuba for medical treatment. One of them is Regina Cervantes. Reggie, what was it like there?

REGINA CERVANTES: It was very surreal. The three of us, the three rescue workers, and Michael had discussed how on 9/11 we suffered an incredibly terrifying, surreal moment and how Michael came to our rescue and provided us with a venue to seek medical treatment and get us some answers, and then in exchange created another surreal moment in our lives. I mean, taking us to Cuba to seek medical treatment was not something we had in our five-year plan, if you asked us on September 10. But we would have gone to the moon, we would have gone to the ends of the earth to get treatment to obtain the testing that we needed to get answers.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was it like? Explain what happened. You didn’t get to Guantanamo, but you did get to Havana Hospital.

REGINA CERVANTES: Right. They didn’t let us on the base. And we, instead, sought medical care in Havana after that, and they treated us just as we would have been treated in the U.S. The difference was there was no bill.

AMY GOODMAN: And there’s a memorable scene where you have your inhaler. Explain what happened there.

REGINA CERVANTES: We went to a pharmacy on one of the streets, when we were looking for a doctor. And the pharmacist told us what it costs for my Combivent inhaler over there, and it was just absolutely just a horrible moment to realize that I’m coming from a system in the U.S. that’s made to profit. And here I am in what’s considered to most people a third world country who’s been oppressed by the U.S. embargo, and they provide their citizens inhalers for five cents.

AMY GOODMAN: How much do you pay here?

REGINA CERVANTES: I have since been taken off that medication after being in Havana. And an inhaler will cost — an albuterol inhaler — about $17 to $20. The Qvar inhaler will cost me about $85.

AMY GOODMAN: And there, it’s five cents.


JUAN GONZALEZ: And what kind of treatment did they give you while you were there in Cuba?

REGINA CERVANTES: Juan, I saw nine specialists. One of them was an allergist. And at one of the work comp hearings, the judge insinuated that my illnesses could be allergy-related. And I don’t have allergies like most people do. I’m not allergic to pollen. I didn’t react to any of those. I’ve developed a chemical sensitivity post-9/11, because of the exposure I had. So they provided a great deal of answers. They did just about everything I needed done.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain, if you went to Ground Zero to volunteer to help, if you weren’t a city employee, what happens to you afterwards in terms of health insurance, in terms of healthcare, Reggie?

REGINA CERVANTES: Basically, you’re on your own. As a volunteer, you’re just totally on your own. You need to seek answers for yourselves, network for yourselves, and try to stay on your feet. You know, there was no organization, no one central place, that would provide assistance or answers. The funding for Mount Sinai medical monitoring program is very limited. They’re able to see most responders and recovery workers about once every 18 months to continue their monitoring to collect data. But the treatment program is very limited by the lack of funds.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you move to Oklahoma City?

REGINA CERVANTES: My children and I had post-traumatic stress disorder in such a severe state that we needed to be able to function. And to do that, we needed treatment. And the waiting lists in New York were tremendous. I had no insurance, and I was losing my home, and I needed to find a place to live. And I went there seeking employment, which I found and later lost because of my lung illness and my post-traumatic stress disorder. But there were a tremendous amount of trained professionals, not just in mental health, but it was just a bit easier to get assistance there, healthcare, for the post-traumatic stress disorder.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And how many other rescue workers that you are in contact with continue to have health problems that they believe are related to their exposure during that period after the collapse of the towers?

REGINA CERVANTES: Every single rescue worker I know that was there on September 11 or during the rescue and recovery phase is sick.


AMY GOODMAN: John Feal of the FealGood Foundation — it’s based in Long Island — leading advocate for 9/11 responders.

JOHN FEAL: Post-traumatic is at its highest between four and six years after a traumatic event. We are now going on six years. 9/11 responders are at their height with their illness. You’re seeing a lot of suicides. You’re seeing a lot of people getting sicker and sicker. Post-traumatic breaks down your immune system, because it’s stress, so while they’re fighting their cancers and their respiratory problems, which aren’t even being addressed, they can’t handle the post-traumatic on top of that, so you’re getting more and more people getting gravely ill and dying. And it just proves the bottom line that human life has taken a back seat to the almighty dollar.

Now, they keep saying the word “monitoring.” Monitoring, the last time I checked, does not save lives. Treatment saves lives. Preventive medicine saves lives. These are people that we hailed heroes six years ago. I am not a hero. I had an unfortunate accident. But the cops and the firemen, you are everyday — you don’t need 9/11 to be called a hero. You’re a hero before that. These people need to be treated accordingly. And it’s not happening at the state, federal and local governments, and there’s problem with that, while no one is being investigated.

AMY GOODMAN: John, you met with Congressmembers Kucinich and Conyers?

JOHN FEAL: I wasn’t at that hearing yesterday, Amy, but I did meet some of them last night at the movie.

AMY GOODMAN: You had the premiere of SiCKO in Washington, D.C.?

JOHN FEAL: Yes, ma’am. Yes, ma’am.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to turn after break now to Dr. Linda Peeno. She worked within the HMO system. I want to thank you both very much for being with us.

REGINA CERVANTES: Thank you for having us.

AMY GOODMAN: John Feal, a leading advocate for 9/11 responders —

JOHN FEAL: Thank you for having us, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: — and Regina Cervantes. And we’ll continue to talk to you. It will be very interesting to see what happens as this film comes out, this campaign, the film certainly more than a movie, a movement about healthcare in this country, about universal healthcare, specifically single payer. Regina Cervantes, trained emergency medical technician; John Feal, leading advocate, his foundation called FealGood Foundation.

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