Ten years on and health problems stemming from the 9/11 attacks in New York are giving cause for serious concern amongst those who were caught up in the terrorist outrage. One survivor who moved to Colombia after the terrorist assault speaks about his own condition.
Al Dominguez found himself running for cover as the South Tower of the World Trade Centre collapsed at 9.59AM on Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
The 27-year-old New York police officer with Colombian parentage was working the early shift when hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 struck the North Tower and, together with numerous colleagues, he raced to the scene. Vivid memories of that fateful day still haunt him almost ten years on.
“Just before 10AM the NYPD command told us to evacuate from the WTC complex as it was structurally unsound, so we got the hell out of there”, says Dominguez.
“We made towards the Millennium Hilton Building nearby but were overcome by a huge cloud of debris caused by the South Tower collapsing.”
“There was a strong, hot wind,” he recalls, “then everything disappeared in a white cloud and I felt like I was choking. I couldn’t swallow and I couldn’t open my eyes. When it was over the dust was in my ears, throat, nose, everywhere.”
Then, obviously shaken by the memory, he adds, “I actually thought I would die right there.”
But painful memories are not the only scars that plague the former cop. Eight months after the attack he was diagnosed with Asthma and began experiencing serious breathing difficulties which have worsened over the years. According to Dominguez, he never suffered respiratory problems before the terrorist attack. “Never. I was always fit, worked out three or four times a week, and enjoyed playing sports. If I’d have been asthmatic I wouldn’t have been accepted into the police department,” he says
According to Dominguez, his respitiratory problems are “absolutely” a result of the incident on September 11. “Almost everyone who went within smelling distance of Ground Zero has ended up with something.”
He suffers from many other illnesses. “I now have fibromyalgia, nodules in my lungs, and suffer from sinusitis, headaches and chronic fatigue.”
Dominguez’s health problems have turned his world upside down. “I can’t work,” he states bluntly. “I can’t even climb a flight of stairs without coughing myself inside out.”
It has been proven by studies carried out by the University of California Davis that debris from the collapsing buildings contained some 2500 contaminants which cause debilitating illnesses, many of which are carcinogens. Professor Ementus Thomas Cahill, who led the study, has labelled this debris as “wildly toxic.”
After years of legal disputes it would now appear that the plight of those affected by inhaling debris caused by the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings has finally been recognized.
Furthermore, several government officials were criticized for urging workers to return to the area around Ground Zero within days of the attacks without considering the possible effects, including New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Even the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, (EPA), Christine Todd Whitman, was slammed by a US District Judge for incorrectly stating that the area was environmentally safe. The EPA itself found that this was not the case and that the air quality in Manhattan did not actually return to normal levels until June, 2002.
“The whole area was polluted for months,” says Dominguez, “and New York refused to recognize that or to pay for health care when people began falling sick. Even the mayor turned his back on us.” Indeed, Mayor Giuliani wrote to New York’s Congressional Delegation in November, 2001, urging them to limit the city’s liability regarding health care claims by emergency workers.
In July 2007, a spokesperson from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health estimated that an extra $250 million a year would be needed to treat the 14,000 people suffering from the medical after effects of 9/11. The New York Fire Department Medical Office Study of April, 2010 found that between 30% and 40% of firefighters who had experienced health issues following 9/11 reported little or no improvement to their persistent symptoms. Of the 5,000 workers taking part in the study some 1000 were found to be suffering from permanent respiratory disabilities.
Eventually, after several law suits, the Health and Compensation Act was passed by central government in December, 2010 recognizing the cause of a wide variety of medical conditions resulting from the inhalation of debris from Ground Zero. The Act is also widely known as the James Zadroga Act, after a New York City police officer who died in 2006 from dust inhalation following the World Trade Center collapse.
The Act also provided $7.4 billion worth of health care and adequate compensation for the 10,000 claimants. Additionally, the names of those who have died from such illnesses will be included on the 9/11 Memorial.
But just how many of these victims are still dying? “I know of five cops who died from post 9/11 respiratory disorders,” says Dominguez. Official figures provided by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene put the number of deaths amongst first response emergency workers since 9/11 at 98, the vast majority of which suffered from fatal respiratory diseases.
The former NYPD cop himself fears for his health. “The guys are dropping like flies. I take eight different medicines each day and breathe through an inhaler at night,” he says. “I’m 37 years old and feel more like 77.”
As a result of his condition Dominguez has now relocated to Colombia, which he has always regarded as his home. “The climate down here is much better,” he says, “those Brooklyn winters weren’t doing me any good at all. And at least I now know that my health care bills get paid and my family will be well catered for when the inevitable happens.”
He stops, in silent thought, then adds, “And at least my name will be on the Memorial for my grandchildren to see.”