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Anthony DePalma on “City of Dust: Illness, Arrogance, and 9/11”

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In New York, a settlement will pay hundreds of millions of dollars to more than 10,000 rescue workers who were exposed to toxic debris after 9/11. We speak with Anthony DePalma, author of the new book City of Dust: Illness, Arrogance, and 9/11. “The dust becomes a metaphor,” DePalma says, “because after those statements come out [about the air being safe to breathe], the rest of the people in New York were left without about the ability to believe anyone. Their trust crumbled, just the way the towers crumbled.” [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: Here in New York, a settlement will pay hundreds of millions of dollars to more than 10,000 rescue workers who were exposed to toxic debris after 9/11. Friday’s agreement comes after a seven-year battle between New York City and first responders who said they were not properly outfitted for rescue and cleanup efforts after the World Trade Center attacks. More than 95 percent of the workers who sued the city have accepted the terms of the settlement and will receive at least $625 million in compensation. Payments will range from a few thousand dollars to well over a million dollars depending on the severity of the injuries.

In a joint statement issued soon after the settlement was accepted, New York lawmakers Jerrold Nadler, Peter King and Carolyn Maloney said, quote, “Nearly everyone agrees that the settlement does not provide adequate funding to fully compensate those who are injured.” Those who signed on to Friday’s settlement would to be eligible for the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. If it passes, it will provide $7.4 billion in aid and medical coverage for 9/11 workers and survivors who were exposed to toxic substances after the 9/11 attacks.

For more on Friday’s settlement and the Zadroga bill that has not yet passed the Senate, I’m joined by author and journalist Anthony DePalma, currently writer-in-residence at Seton Hall University. His latest book is City of Dust: Illness, Arrogance, and 9/11. He was a reporter and foreign correspondent for the New York Times for 22 years.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

ANTHONY DePALMA: Good morning. Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Talk about the significance of this settlement, $625 million.

ANTHONY DePALMA: $625 million that will go to upwards of around 10,000 people who were down there. This includes firefighters, policemen and construction workers — a whole range of people who spent up to nine months down at Ground Zero cleaning up. The basic issue was whether or not they were properly warned of the danger and then given the equipment that they needed to protect themselves.

Importantly, you have to understand that this was not a class action suit, because each of the exposures was different and each of the effects was different. So what they did was the judge required them to bring together each of these suits individually and put them into what’s called a joint action. So you’ve got 10,000 individual cases — really significant, because each one of them would have to be tried separately. So the judge in federal court, Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein, knew that he was facing this impossible task of 10,000 individual cases. Imagine, one case could take years. So he has pushed them towards a settlement, but it’s a settlement without ever actually hearing any of the arguments in court. What that means, in the long run, is that even though most of the people have signed — 95.1 percent — there are still about 500 individual cases that could potentially go forward into litigation.

AMY GOODMAN: Who are those who are getting more than a million dollars?

ANTHONY DePALMA: The way the litigation is set up, according to Judge Hellerstein’s structure, is there are four tiers of individuals based on the severity of their illnesses. Tier one are thousands of people who are either not sick and fear that they will be sick in the future or have relatively minor respiratory irritants and that kind of thing. And then, tier two, more severe. Three, more severe. And then tier four is the category of the most severely injured people. And 98 percent of those people have agreed to accept the settlement. So we don’t know exactly who the individuals are in those cases. We do know that some of the people who have been involved in the litigation from the very beginning — in fact, the two guys who were the very first responders to file suit — have not accepted. And so, it’s likely that they are going to be going to trial.

AMY GOODMAN: Describe the symptoms, for example, at stage four.

ANTHONY DePALMA: Yeah. We’re talking mostly about respiratory problems. So it could be someone with a lung cancer. It could be someone with a lung-scarring disease like sarcoidosis or fibrosis. It could be someone who has lost the ability to work, or in fact some of the people who have died as a result of these injuries. What they want to do is to be able to link, with some degree of medical certainty, exposure to the dust and the kinds of illnesses that the people are claiming. So, unfortunately — and one reason why there are people who didn’t sign on to this — you might ask, “Well, why wouldn’t you?” If there’s — there was a female detective who testified several times in court, and she has breast cancer that she developed after working down at 9/11. So she had to go through surgeries. She’s lost her ability to work. But she’s not in tier four, even though the disease is quite serious, because, as of right now, there’s not scientific evidence to link that type of cancer with the dust.


ANTHONY DePALMA: Tricky, tricky. We know that there are hundreds of people who were down there who have died. But what we don’t know is whether or not they died as a result of exposure to the illness — to the dust. The number — the State Health Department is keeping track of the number of deaths, and they counted, as of last July, 836. Now, we know that there are others after that. But of what universe? The number of people that were down there working from September until July of the following year could be as high as 90,000. So, of those, we know that some of them probably died as a result of exposure, and some of them may not have died as a result of exposure. Some of their illnesses may have been exacerbated by exposure. All of those things are not yet resolved. That’s why it’s important to continue to do the treatment and to continue to have the research.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about Felicia Dunn-Jones.

ANTHONY DePALMA: When it comes to deaths, Felicia Dunn-Jones’s name stands out among all of them. And her case is quite unusual. She was not actually in the towers. She was a civil rights attorney who worked for the U.S. Department of Education in a building a block away. When the towers were struck, she could actually see what happened. Her building was pelted by debris. They didn’t let the employees leave after the first plane hit, but after the second one did, they all went out. She lives in Staten Island. So she was down on Church Street as the first building came down.

AMY GOODMAN: Not an emergency worker.

ANTHONY DePALMA: Not an emergency worker, no. No, no, she was an employee like thousands and thousands of other people who were simply exposed because she was down there. As she tried to make her way back home to Staten Island, she was covered in dust the first time and then the second time. It took her most of the day to get back. That was in September. By February of the following year, she was severely debilitated, was taken to the hospital, and died suddenly. When — because of the circumstances, there was an autopsy done, and they found that the cause of death was sarcoidosis, this term that I used before. We know that there are firefighters who were exposed to the Ground Zero dust, they had a spike in the number of cases of sarcoidosis at the very beginning that was five times higher than the number of cases they had in the previous 15 years. So there’s a real close link.

AMY GOODMAN: And sarcoidosis is the hardening of?

ANTHONY DePALMA: It is an autoimmune disease where the organs are covered with cysts that sort of harden up. We don’t know exactly what causes it, but there is a link to exposure to heavy dust in the past. They’ve known that. So she had this. She asked — her family asked the medical examiner in New York City to consider whether or not it was linked to the dust. And Dr. Hirsch, the chief medical examiner in New York, eventually did agree that her death was caused by sarcoidosis, which was caused by exposure to the dust. So her name will be added to the formal list of victims that will be inscribed down at the memorial at 9/11. That’s become a very important thing. Others have tried to ask for that, including the family of James Zadroga, and the medical examiner has refused to do it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about James Zadroga, for whom the congressional bill is named, astonished many that the Senate will not — we are talking about police, firefighters, emergency workers — that it has been so embroiled in politics in the Senate that it has not been passed to help those people who helped at Ground Zero and got so sick.


AMY GOODMAN: Who was James Zadroga?

ANTHONY DePALMA: James Zadroga was a veteran detective, New York City, arrived at Ground Zero on September 11th and spent somewhere upwards of 400 hours working down there. He very quickly came down with respiratory problems and was unable to work. He applied to the first September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which most of us know about as a result of their providing help for the families of the people who died. But they also provided help for 2,000 or so people who were injured, like James Zadroga. So he — because his injuries developed very quickly, before the cutoff date of December 2003, he was eligible to receive compensation, which he did receive compensation for.

In January of 2006, he died at his father’s home in New Jersey, so a pathologist in New Jersey was given the task of doing an autopsy. He did, and he concluded, and this was the language that they used — in medical terms, this is like the gold standard — with a reasonable degree of medical certainty, his death was directly related to his exposure to the dust. So that was the first case of a responder where we had that scientific evidence. So, we thought, in the press, as I was covering it for the New York Times before I wrote the book, that this was a sentinel case. This was a case that was going to really change everything. And in fact it did cause the Bush administration to appoint a national 9/11 health coordinator and got them much more involved than they had been before. The Bush administration’s position basically had been, from the beginning, that the dust wasn’t harmful. So that made it difficult for them to ever provide much money for screening, if you said at the beginning that it wasn’t harmful.

Zadroga’s case then sort of triggered lots of things. But the family tried to do what Felicia Dunn-Jones’s family did, which was to have Zadroga’s name added to the memorial list. So they presented the case to the New York City chief medical examiner. Even though there was an autopsy, it was done outside the city. So the chief medical examiner had to take a look at it so that they could add his name to the list. And as it turns out, the chief medical examiner didn’t agree with the findings and found that there was another reason for his death.

The Zadroga bill still carries his name, and it has been involved in politics. During the Bush administration, it really didn’t get anywhere. It was only with the incoming Obama administration and the Democratic Congress in the last year and a half that it’s been able to move forward. It passed the House in September, late September. There was an amendment to the bill, because one of the problems was lots of the responders who were supposed to take the settlement in the litigation were waiting to see what would happen with the Zadroga bill. They were afraid if they took the settlement, they would not be able to take the money that comes from the Zadroga bill. The amendment allowed them to do both. And as a result, I think that helped push you over the 95 percent. It passed in September. Now it goes — it’s sitting in the Senate. Senator Gillibrand in New York and Senator Schumer are pushing hard. Last week, Mayor Bloomberg, the entire congressional delegation were down in Washington buttonholing Republicans, with the hope that they can get one or two who would be willing to vote for it. But there are several problems. Paying for it is one. And I think, in a way, the settlement may actually make it a little bit more difficult, because people around the rest of the country will be looking and saying, “Well, these people have already received the settlement.”

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to an interview I did with one of the sick 9/11 workers. Joe Picurro was an ironworker from New Jersey. He was 34 years old when he worked at Ground Zero after 9/11. He died last month from his illnesses. I spoke to Joe by phone on September 11th, 2009.

JOE PICURRO: And, you know, like my doctor said, I have the lungs of a 95-year-old man. Now, you know, what she said about age, you know, we’re aging and our bodies are aging way before they’re supposed to. You know, and like I said, the doctor gave me a year or so to live, you know, and a year or two to live.

And, you know, that’s — you know, we need to get this straight. We need to straighten this out. We need to get the funding. We need to get the James Zadroga bill passed. You know, I mean, I’ve been saying this year after year — so has Ms. Maloney and also Ms. Moline —- that it has to be passed. And yet, it never seems to make it. It never seems to get passed. And I don’t understand why. I don’t -—

I mean, we were there for them when they needed us. And, you know, they told us — Christine Whitman stood there, and I don’t care what she says about it. She said the pile was different. She’s a liar. I was standing there. She did not say that the air was different on the pile. She stood on the pile with her mask below her neck and talked to us and told us we were heroes and said the air was fine, and she put the mask back on, and she got back in her car, and she left, you know, and went back to New Jersey where it was safe. So she’s a liar, and that’s all she is.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Joe Picurro speaking September 11th, 2009, diagnosed with a respiratory illness in 2004 that was a result of breathing in poisonous fumes at Ground Zero. Your assessment of Christine Todd Whitman — Christie Todd Whitman, who was head of the EPA at the time, telling people immediately to go back to work very soon after the attacks, that all was safe?

ANTHONY DePALMA: Yeah. Her statements were actually vetted by the White House. And so, I had a chance, as I was working on the book, to look at her original statements and then the statements as they were modified by the White House. And it was clear that there was a message that the administration was trying to get across, and it was implemented through her statements, which was basically, “Eh, if there’s any danger, it’s minor. We need to get back to work.” And so, she played her role in that, and unfortunately, for an agency that’s very good. The EPA is very good at giving out warnings on ozone alert day, you know, where they’ll tell people, if you’re pregnant, if you’re elderly, you have children, shouldn’t be outside. In this case, they gave an incredibly general statement that was misunderstood. You can only assume that it was deliberate.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan isn’t with us today, but he was doing a lot of that first reporting. On October 26, 2001, in a Daily News front-page story headlined “A Toxic Nightmare at Disaster Site,” he reported that hundreds of tests conducted by the EPA revealed far more elevated levels of toxic pollutants in the air and dust in Lower Manhattan than the public had been told. It was a shocking story that was immediately attacked by top officials and then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s administration. Juan was under enormous pressure for what he wrote, but he didn’t back down, also reported about the level of asbestos, downtown Manhattan.

ANTHONY DePALMA: Sure, sure. You know, one of the lessons of this that I think we need to keep in mind, in case or whenever something like this happens again, is that at the very beginning the dust was visible to everyone. Right? Everyone who saw it understood that this can’t possibly be good. We knew about asbestos in those buildings, because the construction was only in the 1970s. People knew that there was asbestos up to the 40th floor. With the focus on asbestos, which the effect of asbestos on the human body takes years or decades, what was overlooked was that most of the dust was made of silica from the super hard concrete that was basically pulverized when the building came down. The effects of breathing in basically gaseous concrete was much more immediate than the long-term problem. As a result of that, we weren’t focused on the kinds of things that might have prevented some of the pulmonary and respiratory problems, because people were breathing in this stuff that had a pH value that was so high it was basically Drano. Now, if Christie Whitman, instead of saying the air is safe to breathe, came out and said, “Look, you need to wear a mask because there’s Drano in the air, and if you breathe this, it’s going to affect your insides as though you were swallowing Drano,” I think the message would have been quite different. So we have to keep in mind that while there are lots of problems, the acute ones, the ones that are easiest to take care of and are most immediately going to affect the largest number of people, can’t simply be ignored. We didn’t hear anything about pH and this high toxicity of the silica for months. And by then, it was much too late.

AMY GOODMAN: You wrote City of Dust: Illness, Arrogance, and 9/11. Go further into the arrogance.

ANTHONY DePALMA: The arrogance. You know, New York City is an incredible place, and it does things here that no other city could do. And the ordinary things here, just like zoning and fire protection, are extraordinary, by the simple scale and scope of it. But there comes a moment when you have to realize your limitations, and I think at the very beginning, the Giuliani administration can be found guilty of a certain arrogance by claiming that they had the capability and the wherewithal to take care of this problem without outside help. It’s hard to understand today, because of what we know about the illnesses, but at that time, there were no public health officials who were actually in charge of the cleanup. The cleanup was under the control of construction people, who do a great job putting up buildings, and they do an OK job taking down buildings, and they can keep you safe from a falling girder, but they don’t work with hazardous material. The people who were trained to do that basically were not involved. So there was a certain arrogance about the way things were handled that I think has long-term consequences.

AMY GOODMAN: And the press very much a part of the establishment in New York, wanting it to return to health. Do you think your paper, the Times, was also guilty of accepting the official statements at the beginning?

ANTHONY DePALMA: I wish that somebody — now, at that time I was on the international business desk, so I wasn’t really involved in the story, but I wish someone from the paper had asked Christie Whitman on that day when she made the statement that Picurro was talking about, where she said the air was safe to breathe, had stopped her, and instead of sighing with relief that things were not so bad — because, remember, at the time we were all shocked and hoping for good news, even if it didn’t make sense —- if someone had just stopped her and said, “Wait a minute. This air is safe to breathe where? The air is safe to breathe when? The air is safe to breathe for everyone or just” -—- and that didn’t happen. And I think that led to a kind of a misunderstanding.

The City of Dust, the dust becomes a metaphor, because after those statements come out — and then the other side, like Juan Gonzalez and Joel Kupferman, who were doing a job — a great job telling people what the dangers are — the rest of the people in New York are left without the ability to believe anyone. So their trust crumbled, just the way the towers crumbled. And then once that happens, it’s difficult to get them to believe anything. And so, here we are, nine years later, litigation is just barely creeping along. Legislation still hasn’t been passed. Thousands of people out there are sick, and thousands and thousands more — this is the worst part — because we haven’t settled any of these questions, thousands and thousands more worried every day, when they hear about someone who died, that day may be next. It’s a horrible way to live.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Anthony DePalma, I want to thank you for being with us. His book is called City of Dust: Illness, Arrogance, and 9/11. He wrote for the New York Times for 22 years, now a writer-in-residence at Seton Hall University. And it just reminds me, again, to renew my call for Juan Gonzalez to be included in that Pulitzer that the New York Daily News won, because he, before all of his colleagues at the Daily News, let alone all the mainstream press in New York, was pursuing this story in those days after 9/11.

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