Monday, December 27, 2010

Sept 11 first responders

Four billion dollars.  

That's the size of the federal settlement passed by Congress to compensate sickened World Trade Center cleanup and first responder workers who breathed the bad air from the "Pile" in the weeks after the towers fell.  No doubt many of these workers were harmed carrying out their duty, and doing their tough jobs.  Firemen, police, clean-up workers, search and rescue personnel, city and Port Authority workers.  Many brave and self-sacrificing people pitched in.

But the story is not as white-hat/black-hat as recent and 2001/2002 media coverage would lead you to conclude.  The US EPA did indeed say that the air was safe some weeks following the attacks.  However, in 2003 the work of one of my old physics professors (Prof. Tom Cahill of UC Davis) showed that the air was in fact very hazardous.  

Whether or not the government said the air was safe or not, the immediate behavior of the workers at Ground Zero was an important part of their exposure to dangerous air.  Many of the workers at the "Pile" engaged in reckless, dangerous and insubordinate conduct.  Firefighters in particular challenged anyone who they thought got in the way of recovering their fallen co-workers.  There was bravado and macho behavior.  On one occasion, there was nearly a small riot.  Some workers openly defied orders.  Some worked without respirators and other safety gear.  Many refused to follow procedures, take orders, adhere to work schedules as laid out by the Port Authority and the city of New York.  
William Langewiesche wrote a brilliant and clear-eyed account of all this (American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center), which first appeared as a spell-binding series in the Atlantic Monthly.   

It was a chaotic time.  The workers were understandably driven by their grief, rage and shame.  But some of them, some of the time, behaved dangerously and with disregard for the consequences of how they were working.  But those workers should share responsibility for what happened to them and to their health.  The harm to the Ground Zero workers was only partly the fault of the federal government.   

I wish that the lethal electric charge surrounding the Sept 11 attacks had discharged to a safe enough voltage that the behavior of the workers could have been openly discussed by at least the media (if not Congress itself) during the negotiations over this federal compensation fund.

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