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Springing into action

 

Kelly McKinney, Associate Commissioner for Regulatory and Environmental Health Services for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, had just gotten off the subway, just after the first plane had hit the South Tower. He was heading to his office at 125 Worth Street, four blocks away from the stricken building when he saw the gash left by the plane, then stood looking up at the towers when the second plane hit.

 

“I saw the scar—that black hole on the gleaming building—and I was in complete shock, thinking it was a bomb,” says McKinney. “Do I run down and help?  But then I thought, ‘we’re not first responders.” Like thousands of other people, McKinney reached for his cell phone. And like others, he found it didn’t work.

 

That would be his first ‘lesson learned’: “The technology you rely on most will fail first!” says McKinney, who got to work to find the building being evacuated.

An emergency response meeting was convening at his office, which would bring together every division of the department. Although their offices would soon close officially, as federal workers fled their offices to join loved ones, staff heads would brace for weeks of 18-hour days.

 “We were there all day, setting up 24/7 operations,” he said, crafting a schedule of who would be on hand to cover the full range of around-the-clock public health demands set off by the disaster—everything from coordinating with hospitals to surveying illnesses and injuries (being ever-mindful that a bioterrorism event could be in progress) to making sure they had enough personnel, medical supplies and equipment.

His division of environmental health, one of five or six, would be right in the thick of things -- overseeing monitoring of the air for toxic and radiological substances as well as the water; inspecting of restaurants and food establishments, and seeing to the health and safety of rescue workers, as well as surveying the crater of Ground Zero for any infestations of insects or rodents following the blast. The attacks had hit in the middle of West Nile season, so the DOH had to continue its ongoing sentinel system to test for any suspicious cases of that deadly virus.

That would be his first ‘lesson learned’: “The technology you rely on most will fail first!”

He, like other health and safety professionals, was left reeling from the disaster, as:

From the first day until the last truckload of debris was hauled off the site of Ground Zero, in a ceremony held May 1, 2002, McKinney would be a key part of the effort by the Office of Emergency Management to oversee environmental health coordination efforts at the wreckage of what were once the world’s tallest high-rise buildings. “It was a very intense scene, with a tremendous assortment of people at work, from National Guard to construction workers to Red Cross to random guys jumping off pickup trucks to help,” he recalls.

Once the event had been declared an act of terrorism, the first response was to send in inspectors to check the air and debris to make sure there were no signs of radiation or radioactive cargo, says McKinney.