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'Everybody was coughing' – 9/11 responders' firsthand experiences

September 11, 2015

Sept. 11, 2001, was a day many of us will remember for the rest of our lives. But for thousands of first responders who assisted in rescue and recovery operations, those memories will be accompanied by debilitating illnesses.

In a new report released on the 14th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health spotlights eight 9/11 responders. The workers tell the story of 9/11 in their own words and describe the illnesses they’ve been battling since being exposed to carcinogens and other health hazards from contaminants in the building debris.

Many thousands of people have their own personal stories of 9/11 and how they’re dealing with those experiences today. Here, taken from the NYCOSH report, are just a few:

“It sounded like freight trains when the building collapsed. It became like a nuclear dawn. ... I had lost my ability to see depth perception from the dust. ... Everybody was coughing up the stuff they inhaled kind of like black phlegm. ... Our skin – or my skin – got incredibly itchy from the asbestos and from the fiber glass in the air.”

- Paul Gerasimczyk, a New York Police Department officer who participated in rescue and recovery operations. Gerasimczyk still suffers from skin issues on his hands and was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, reactive airways dysfunction syndrome (RADS), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and sleep apnea. He also had part of his kidney removed due to a tumor.

“There was thick dust everywhere. ... Since we had filters on the outside of the building we weren’t wearing any masks there. ... The fumes from the pit were constant. It was always there, and you could smell it. ... My upper respiratory [system] is just shot.”

- Joe McCauley, a computer support consultant who volunteered at the New York City Office of Emergency Management. McCauley worked out of a temporary OEM center in an elementary school and, later, at a 311 call center near the World Trade Center site. In addition to respiratory issues, McCauley suffers from depression.

“It was so itchy we scratched so bad we ripped the skin. ... Everything that was in the buildings was on us. We didn’t have any masks. ... I didn’t think about all the stuff that we were breathing in. What I was thinking about was helping the people down there.”

- Daisy Bonilla, a New York Police Department school safety agent who helped patrol and secure the disaster area. Bonilla has asthma, sleep apnea, GERD, chronic sinusitis, post-traumatic stress disorder and joint inflammation.

“Everyone developed what they call the WTC cough, but we didn’t think anything about it. All we wanted to do was the job at hand. ... It was exhausting, but you had to keep going. I swear I lost something down there and I just never got it back.”

- John Soltes, a retired Port Authority Police Department officer who assisted in rescue and recovery efforts. He was diagnosed with sleep apnea and Barrett’s esophagus, a precursor to esophagus cancer.

“How many times did they tell us it was safe? ... And then all of a sudden they said it was a toxic mess. ... I don’t know how many times I had the mask down not knowing the importance of it. ... We didn’t realize how much damage was done by sucking in that dust.”

- Richard Dixon, a New York Police Department transit officer who assisted in recovery and rescue operations. Dixon was diagnosed with sleep apnea, sinusitis and GERD.

“We had to climb up on the trucks while the driver was idling and get their information. ... We tried to do this with the respirators on but they couldn’t hear us over the inordinate amount of noise ... so we ended up taking off the respirators. ... Once you take it off and dust gets in ... it was useless.”

- Haydee Diaz, an actor who volunteered as a traffic control flagger at the WTC site. She has lost her sense of smell, and suffers from GERD, hiatal hernia, gastritis, RADS, bronchitis, sinusitis an allergic rhinitis.

“Around 2005, 2006, I started getting sick – started getting panic anxiety attacks and a lot of respiratory problems. The back of my throat and nose area would burn. ... I would choke in my sleep.”

- Placido Perez, a licensed emergency medical technician who was working in the telecommunications industry when he volunteered as an emergency medical services responder. Perez spent a week after the attack working 12- to 14-hour shifts performing triage for injured firefighters and police officers. He was diagnosed with GERD, restrictive lung disease and severe rhinitis.

“Every time they found a body, a silence came over the whole workplace. ... In November, they were still finding bodies. ... I am an upbeat person, love-living enjoy-life type of kid. ... I had a breakdown on the anniversary and just cried and cried ... I wasn’t functioning. I was so depressed.”

- Deidra Maxwell, a highway repair supervisor who volunteered to supervise debris removal at the WTC site. In addition to depression, Maxwell was diagnosed with asthma and developed allergies.

The opinions expressed in "On Safety" do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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