9/11 transcends time Sunday as countless men, women and children relive the pain of losing nearly 3,000 killed by terrorists 15 years ago.
The 2,977 killed that day overall sent shockwaves across history. The number of injured has also steadily increased, and more than 33,000 are being treated currently for serious illnesses and cancers.
Overall, nearly 75,000 people are being monitored for illnesses, federal data show, as concerns mount of the next wave of 9/11 related diseases, such as those linked to asbestos exposure that develop over several decades.
What follows are stories of the life-changing aftermath of 9/11 faced by New York firefighters and first responders who rushed into danger on that fateful day as told to The (Westchester County, N.Y.) Journal News.
Certain industrial sounds still trigger Robert Reeg's memories of World Trade Center jumpers hitting the pavement.
“It’s the nature of the world that most people have moved on, but the people directly involved with 9/11, for them, twice a day, it’s 9/11,” he said, explaining he thinks about that day at least two times every day. “We try not to dwell on it too much but, when the anniversary is coming up, you have to reflect a little bit, and it seems like it’s hard to believe that it’s been 15 years.”
Terrorism seems timeless to the retired firefighter despite 15 years of healing since the 9/11 attacks. He was based at FDNY Engine 44 on the Upper East Side that day.
The 64-year-old father was saved from the rubble after two hijacked planes struck the towers.
Q: How did that Sept. 11 morning unfold for you?
A: We had initially been assigned and went down to a staging area opposite the North Tower. Right across the street is where all the numerous jumpers came down a hundred stories, and some of those firefighters you could tell had just graduated from the fire academy. Some of them were getting pretty upset and Danny Williams from Ladder 16 (on the Upper East Side) said, ‘We can’t help those people and we gotta stay focused on our task at hand.'
He told us to turn around and so we all turn around, and the jumpers would hit and they’d explode. You’d hear this tremendous horrible explosion and that bothered me for a long time, and certain sounds in industry sound like it.
Q: How did you get hurt?
A: I just went to get a piece of equipment out of the fire engine, it has like a roll up gate on it, like a soda truck, and I picked it up and I was looking straight up and I saw the top coming off the South Tower and so I just started running. As I was running, you could start hearing the rumble and then that big gust of wind, a tremendous gust of wind, they said it was hundreds of miles an hour. All that dust picked me up off my feet, and that’s when I got hit, a scary moment for sure, and you couldn’t breath and couldn’t see anything.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my ribs got hit so hard they were pulverized and shoved into my lungs.
Q: When did you learn of the scope of the attacks?
A: I didn’t really know how bad it was until a few days later, and a nurse in recovery brought in a newspaper. That’s how I found out because the headline was about a good friend of mine, Tim Stackpole, that he was lost. It broke my heart to hear that. He was a very courageous guy and had just recovered from a burn injury and was promoted to captain. It was a picture and his family, and I knew his family and that was tough.
David Worby’s story begins two years after hijacked planes struck the World Trade Center towers.
As tales of 9/11 heroism turned into Ground Zero medical mysteries, the White Plains lawyer started an odyssey of court battles, media frenzy and funerals.
At the time, cancers and rare diseases mounted among firefighters, police and others who spent months cleaning up Ground Zero, but authorities still disagreed with Worby’s theory that working at the site made them sick.
“Our people were wearing, at best, hospital masks of paper, so tens of thousands of people are sick as a result of the way this was handled,” Worby said during a recent interview. “It’s tragic, and it’s sad that more people are sick and dying from this than died on that actual date.”
Since 9/11, the ranks of first responders and survivors suffering from illnesses has grown steadily. Nearly 75,000 people are being monitored or treated for various conditions, according to data from The World Trade Center Health Program, which tracks the issue. That includes 5,500 cancer cases, and 27,500 other serious physical and mental health diseases.
He represented 9/11 workers in an unprecedented lawsuit that linked their illnesses to toxic-chemical exposure at Ground Zero.
The case drew international attention and resulted in a nearly $1 billion settlement.
“The lesson learned here is that we can’t allow any of our leaders to say that, ‘Well, we’re tough New Yorkers and we don’t need (federal safety) protocol,’” Worby said. “It was risky behavior with dire consequences.”
Q: How did the lawsuit begin?
A: This whole thing started with a Westchester hockey coach (John Walcott, a New York City police detective) and a White Plains lawyer. There was nothing before that and everyone else had turned the case down. It’s pretty amazing what it has become at this point.
Q: Why did you take the case?
A: John had been the hockey coach at Fox Lane (High School in Bedford), and all my kids’ friends’ parents said, ‘Come on Mr. Worby, you write a letter.’ They just wanted to try to get him a disability payment. This wasn’t about a lawsuit. Then the city turned down a disability claim. We were running out of time and we filed a notice of claim, and somehow that got into the newspaper. The next day more calls started coming and people said, ‘Wait, there is a lawyer willing to help the sick 9/11 cops and firemen?’
Q: What happened as the case expanded?
A: As it grew, I realized that, with all the experience I’ve had, I never handled a mass-tort action. Our firm wasn’t technologically set up with the callbacks and things like that to do something like that, and we partnered with a New York City firm. That’s when it started to get complicated, because I was the spokesperson for the firm. I was talking to The New York Daily News and New York Post, and when the nun, Sister Cindy (Mahoney), got sick and died of lung disease (in 2006) she was on the cover of the Post.
That was at the same time that I was claiming there was reduced latency periods for these leukemias and diseases because a lot of these cops and firemen had pre-existing exposures.
George Faller has spent countless hours since 9/11 trying to convince traumatized firefighters to share their feelings.
Many seem perpetually trapped on Sept. 12, 2001, as they relive the prior day’s terrorist attacks alongside Faller, a retired New York City firefighter turned therapist.
To reach battle-hardened firefighters trained to suppress emotions, the Somers resident likes to use the image of crawling through a burning building in an oxygen mask.
“We’re taught not to be able to express a lot of these feelings,” he said. “That is a sign of weakness to talk about these things, and, in certain settings, that is incredibly appropriate; Like, if I’m crawling into a fire, I don’t want the guy next to me expressing his fears and vulnerability.”
But the inability to turn off that mindset after the job is how struggles with alcoholism, drug abuse and marital strife arise.
“You’re crawling around in a fire and, without the mask, you would die, but, when you go home and you’re still wearing that mask it gets in the way if you want to be intimate with your wife, or play with your kids,” Faller said.
As one of thousands who rushed into danger on 9/11, the father of two and former firefighter on Ladder Truck 28 in Harlem shared his story with The Journal News.
Q:Where were you on 9/11?
A: I was home. We had just given birth to my first son.
When the first tower collapsed, I was at my firehouse in Harlem. Then we had commandeered a bus and gotten all our gear together and we got down to the World Trade Center right after the second tower had collapsed.
Q:What was the scene like?
A: That first moment was a sight like I had never seen. It was twisted steel and the smoke, and it was like you were on a different planet.
We like to call a fire controlled chaos. It’s like crazy things are happening, but you know where people are. You have radios. There is organization to it all.
9/11 was like no other. It was no organization. All the leaders were dead, and nobody knew where people were and people were all over the place. It was pretty chaotic.
Q:How did the next days and weeks unfold?
A: There is nothing like driving down there seeing thousands of people lined up giving you whatever food and drink you need and clapping.
It brought out the best of people, and it didn’t make a difference what color or religion. All that stuff, none of it mattered.
I never felt so united in a purpose before … A lot of people talk about post-traumatic stress syndrome, and that certainly impacts a lot of us, but I certainly see my experience looking back afterwards was more like post-traumatic growth syndrome.
You see a lot people whose lives actually change for the better after a disaster. They find more meaning and find more purpose. I was a bit wild and carefree, and, after 9/11, my family became more important and I tried to help others. I certainly look back on that, and my life changed for the better.