David Worby, Walcott’s attorney, hardly views it that way. A veteran trial lawyer, he made his fortune from personal-injury cases, including seven-figure settlements on behalf of children hit by drunk drivers and victims of unjustified police shootings. Today, he owns a $10 million English-manor estate in Bedford and was in the midst of slowing down his legal career and turning to other interests, like writing pop songs and screenplays, when he heard about Walcott through a friend.
“If you expose a person to this amount of lead, cadmium, benzene, asbestos, and glass shards, they are going to be sick,” says Worby. “They’re going to be sick in a way that this country has never seen except maybe for Agent Orange.” And it’s not just the sheer volume of toxins in the air, he adds. It’s what he calls the “cocktail pulverization effect.” No one, he points out, has ever studied what this particular mix of chemicals might do to people. “How can they say it’s not harmful?” he asks. “That’s just arrogant.”
Like many trial lawyers, Worby tends to use bold letters when plain type may suffice. “I am prognosticating,” he says, “that these men who came home and passed out in their beds, with the fibers and glass shards all over them, and these women who came home every night and washed their clothes, with their children’s clothes . . . ” He trails off. “More people could die from this than died on the day of 9/11.”
If it were only plaintiff’s lawyers who were making these allegations, their claims might not seem so credible. But there are doctors who are at least willing to countenance the notion that 9/11 was different, if not the impending health disaster that Worby predicts. Charles Hesdorffer, the director of the bone-marrow transplant and tumor immunotherapy program at Columbia Presbyterian, provided testimony to the federal government’s Victim Compensation Fund. He consented because he found it odd that two of his own patients at Columbia Presbyterian were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer after working at the World Trade Center pile, and one of those patients knew of two others. Four cases in 40,000—that was a much higher incidence than in the population at large. And while prepared to believe that it was a coincidence, a freak cluster of some kind, he was also aware of the unusual exposures of the day. “I thought it was strange,” says Hesdorffer. “And while it was a short time for these patients to present, it wasn’t that short. Though we think cancer’s a slowly developing process, no one knows for sure.”
It’s also possible, doctors say, that the carcinogens in the World Trade Center dust accelerated cancers that were already under way in some rescue workers, either by promoting further mutations in genes whose cancerous transformations were nearly complete, or by tampering with genes that suppress these deadly mutations. According to James Manfredi, a cancer researcher and molecular biologist at Mount Sinai, there are certain compounds that “alter genetic expression in a more global way,” meaning that if a person were first exposed to a carcinogen and then to one of these compounds, cancer could more rapidly ensue. And Lord knows what, coming from that pile, could have qualified as a cancer promoter.
What you had at ground zero, says one expert, “was a ground-level municipal incinerator that smoldered for months. And it was burning the most heavily computerized building in the world.”
When John Walcott was diagnosed with leukemia, he at first asked his doctors nothing about his future. Later, as he came to accept his condition, he tried to do some research. It made him crazy. Forty percent recovery rates from chemo? He found himself breaking down in front of his computer terminal in the evening and asking his oncologist about what he’d read in the morning. She advised him to quit reading. “I became the ‘What-If Guy,’ ” he says. “The guy everyone hated in the police academy was the What-If Guy. ‘What if this happened? What if that . . . ?’ I was never that. And I became that.”
For six months, Walcott led the life of Sisyphus. He’d go for chemotherapy, which would utterly deplete him; then he’d receive blood transfusions, feel his strength return, and have to start chemo all over again. After months of deliberation, he decided to go for a stem-cell transplant, figuring the odds of a full recovery were greater. It didn’t take. Instead, he was in the hospital for 30 days, near-dead from a lung infection. For four days, he slept on an ice mattress to get his fever down; for two weeks, he was too weak to pick up a glass of water. His friend Richard Volpe, who worked with him at Fresh Kills and is now ailing from two partially functioning kidneys (he has signed on as a client of Worby’s), had to pour water down his throat.
On the day Walcott was supposed to go home, a doctor came by and read his chart. His kidneys were going haywire. “My wife had already told my daughter I was coming home,” he says. “Colleen sat on the stairs for like an hour, just waiting. On the bottom step. And I never came through the door.” He starts, discreetly, to weep.
For men like John Walcott, the greatest health threat posed by the 9/11 attacks clearly came from breathing the air and from prolonged exposure to the pile. But what about downtown residents and workers, who not only breathed the air at the time of the attack, but potentially continue breathing some modified form of it to this day, in their offices and homes? Kelly Colangelo is one such person. She’s one of the twelve original plaintiffs in the EPA lawsuit initiated by downtown residents.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Colangelo had the misfortune of leaving her windows open on John Street and Broadway. On September 12, after sneaking back to her apartment to appraise the situation, she was astonished at what she found: a neat slope of dust, starting under her windowsill and finishing at her doorway, like a ramp for the disabled. She was so disoriented that the only things she thought to grab were CDs, DVDs, beer, cookies, handbags, and some matching belts.
Colangelo’s landlord threatened to sue anyone who broke his lease, so Colangelo hired a contractor who brought in a team of immigrant day workers to clean her place. On September 30, she moved back in. Her symptoms began almost immediately. She developed a rash on her hands and mouth, a benign nodule on her thyroid, joint pain, sinus problems, coughing fits, sharp stomach aches, even sharper headaches, crushing fatigue. Eventually, she hired two independent companies to analyze the dust that was still trapped in her window frames. One company found no asbestos; the second found ranges of 1.4 to 2 percent. The EPA considers any level above 1 percent in the air to be dangerous. Both companies also found high levels of fibrous glass.