It was one of the indelible images of 9/11: a dark cloud chasing people up Broadway as they fled the collapsing Towers. The cloud turned out to be an aerosolized mix of poisons, thousands of them: silicon, Freon, PCBs, asbestos, lead, pulverized concrete, and on and on [T2]. It covered panicked survivors, coated buildings, seeped into ventilation systems, and hinted at the larger problem to come. The acres of rubble quickly became, as one CDC official on site at the time recently explained, “a hazmat situation.”
Many thought ground zero would be declared a Superfund site—the location of an “uncontrolled hazardous release,” as one congressional aide said. But to Mayor Giuliani, and to President Bush, declaring sixteen acres of lower Manhattan an environmental disaster was like admitting defeat. We’re “not [going to] let these cowards affect us,” Giuliani had said. People had to return to work. Wall Street had to be reopened (firefighters and NYPD officers rang the opening bell at the Stock Exchange on September 17). And so conclusions were massaged; cautionary statements fell by the wayside. “Anyone who declared things were bad was declared unpatriotic,” Joel Kupferman, of the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project, told me recently. The EPA yielded to pressure from the White House. On September 18, EPA administrator Christie Whitman was “glad to reassure the people of New York” that “their air is safe to breathe.” The EPA’s own inspector general later concluded that assertion went beyond the scientific data, but the mayor was glad to echo the message. “The air quality is safe and acceptable,” he said on September 28, even as his staff warned that the city could face as many as 10,000 liability claims.
“It wasn’t a cover-up,” concluded Anthony DePalma, whose book City of Dust is the most comprehensive treatment of the subject to date, “but an attempt to put the best face on things.” In the resonant phrase of Suzanne Mattei, head of the Sierra Club of New York, it was “a conspiracy of purpose.”
As early as October 2001, Dr. Philip Landrigan, head of Mount Sinai’s department of community and prevention medicine, warned that thousands were at risk of serious illness. Some victims and rescue workers fell sick within a few months of the attacks. The monitoring system proved far from perfect. Officials sometimes focused on the wrong contaminants.
City officials did insist that, as a precaution, workers on the pile wear respirators. But many resisted. Some felt guilty: After brother firefighters gave their lives, worrying about one’s own health seemed disloyal. The mayor was probably the only person with “the moral authority,” as DePalma explained, to insist that workers don protective gear. But the image of hundreds of people wearing face masks and oxygen tanks was not going to help “bring the city back to normal,” Giuliani’s priority. Even he didn’t wear a respirator when he toured the site.
Under Giuliani’s guidance, demolition moved ahead swiftly, and the site was cleared in barely nine months, well ahead of schedule. Today the haste seems misguided. “What was the rush?” asked Paul Napoli, a lawyer for more than 10,000 plaintiffs who later won an $812 million settlement. “It took six years for construction to even begin at the World Trade Center.”
From the archives
• Deal Reached on 9/11 Health-Care Bill (Daily Intel/NYMag, December 22, 2010)
• Jon Stewart’s Takedown of GOP Opposition to the Zadroga Bill (Daily Intel/NYMag, December 14, 2010)
• Fallout: Is 9/11 Making Us Sick? (New York Magazine, September 20, 2004)
• Zero for Heroes (New York Magazine, September 20, 2004)