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What category of catastrophe?


Before this disaster was regarded as a pollution event, it was a crime scene, an international terrorist incident unparalleled in history, and even an act of war. The World Trade Center terror attack was so complicated—involving so many mass casualties, so vast a crime scene, so many firefighting and rescue challenges, and so many national and international implications, that arguably it was too big to respond to quickly.


Yet one of the city’s first decisions was to declare Lower Manhattan and the Ground Zero area environmentally safe. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Christie Whitman said, “Given the scope of the tragedy from last week, I am glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington, D.C., that their air is safe to breathe and their water is safe to drink.” New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has said that tests of air and water had turned up “no significant problems.”


Critics would later charge that the city and EPA did not have sufficient information—scarcely any samples of air and dust taken at this point—to make such a declaration. More than a year later, EPA itself in a draft of a “Lessons Learned” report from the Inspector General’s Office would state outright that such a declaration was premature. In reality, the nature of the emergency outstripped available agency resources. (3)



Three months later, fires still burned and smoldered beneath the World Trade Center wreckage, releasing high levels of benzene, as well as other toxic compounds, such as dioxin.


What made that critical management decision particularly problematic was that three months later, fires still burned and smoldered beneath the World Trade Center wreckage, in the process releasing high levels of benzene, an organic compound that can lead to leukemia, bone marrow damage and other diseases after long-term exposure, as well as other toxic compounds, such as dioxin.


Besides this, the dust created by the initial building collapse and the debris being trucked out was brought through open doors and windows, through ventilation systems and tracked in on shoes, into homes, offices and schools in the area.


For many months, the events of September 11 would severely test the community disaster response plans of New York City especially, including five local agencies that dealt with environmental health, and their coordination with another dozen state and federal agencies.


Volunteers found themselves way, way over their heads; agencies, too, were reeling from the attack. The challenges before them were monumental—addressing environmental health problems, occupational health and safety problems, identifying potential disease or injury trends, monitoring exposures, and finally communicating those hazards to decision makers and the public.


That second day, with so many people still unaccounted for in New York, it is understandable that people would risk their own health to save lives. All kinds of numbers would be thrown around to try to assess the numbers lost. Whatever the ultimate death toll, it will be "more than any of us can bear," said New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, hours after the horrific attacks--a quote often repeated to show the mayor’s leadership in an atmosphere of confusion, fear and anguish. His leadership was widely touted, and Queen Elizabeth of England even acknowledged his behavior by knighting him. (4)

Photo: Paul Olivier

Although the mayor remained a figure of calm in the midst of the city’s crisis, steadfastly assuring the public that emergency workers were doing their jobs to manage the scene properly, some argued that his calming words hid some potent dangers.


Two years later, Forras remembers the Mayor standing next to then-EPA administrator Christie Whitman, saying the air’s safe.  “When you have someone of the caliber of Mayor Giuliani saying it, they took that as gospel,” says Forras. “For me, it’s very scary. We lost another firefighter, and that makes one in New York and two volunteers who have died of pneumonia. My lungs are totally shot, and I’m afraid that’s what many of us are going to die of.”