Fred Mogul, Reporter, WNYC News
Fred Mogul has been covering healthcare and medicine for WNYC since 2002.
New York, NY —
Rudy Giuliani’s stature as a national leader and presidential candidate has flowed from his actions following September 11th.
Today, in the 2nd of a 2-part series, we look at what the Giuliani administration did and didn’t do to protect rescue, recovery and cleanup workers from potential hazards in the air. WNYC’s Fred Mogul has this report.
GIULIANI: The air is safe as far as we can tell, however, we really urge all the relief workers to use the masks and goggles when they get really close.
REPORTER: Construction worker John Yannucci spent about five months directing traffic and moving debris and at the World Trade Center. One afternoon, about three weeks after the attacks, Mayor Rudy Giuliani passed by.
GIULIANI: That was World Trade Center 1 over there . . .
REPORTER: Giuliani was leading a group of Congressional representatives. News reporters were following close by, and WNYC’s Beth Fertig stopped to talk to Yannucci.
YANNUCCI: The progress is going okay. It’s just that you know, we just find a lot of parts. I don’t want to say on the radio what we’re finding. I’m not supposed to
REPORTER: Yannucci was standing amid debris. He was a little bit away from the still-burning fire. He said he was working about 15 hours a day at that point.
YANNUCCI: All the guys who go in there have it bad. I don’t have it so bad. I don’t have to wear the masks. I’m not really near there. The other guys, they have a hard day.
REPORTER: Giuliani was standing nearby, and he wasn’t wearing a mask, either. Today, Yannucci and thousands of construction and rescue workers wish they had.
YANNUCCI: My breathing's no good. My coughing. My fingernails don't grow. My toenails don't grow. They're turning yellow and falling off my skin. My sleeping at night changed. I have nightmares, too. Everything changed on me.
REPORTER: We spoke to half a dozen high-level city officials who maintain that the city tried as hard as it could to get workers to wear masks at Ground Zero. Robert Adams, the safety chief at the site for the Department of Design and Construction, or DDC, says air quality and respirator use were concerns — but they were never at the very top of the list. Adams recalls one worker on the edge of one of the many pits beneath the vast honeycomb of rubble.
ADAMS: And my first worry isn't that he doesn't have respirator on, my first worry is that if he falls off of that, he's being seriously hurt. That respirator isn't going to do anything to protect him from a sharp piece of reinforcing steel.
REPORTER: Adams was known as a worksite scold. One cartoon drawn by workers shows him on a soapbox, wearing an Arab head-dress and preaching jihad against people who failed to wear their respirators.
ADAMS: We certainly were not remiss in advising them. We were not remiss in telling them. We were not remiss in even providing them. We had thousands and thousands of respirators. There was never a situation in which people couldn't get a respirator. Everybody knew about it. It was all over the site, with dozens, if not hundreds of people going out there harping and haranguing.
REPORTER: FDNY Operations Chief Sal Cassano, speaking in a lawsuit-related deposition, says there were mixed messages.
CASSANO: But we were told by EPA that the air quality was safe. I mean, it was in the newspapers, it was on the radio, it was on the television.
REPORTER: Pete Gorman, who was head of the fire department officers’ union at the time, says he and other union leaders also tried to make workers wear masks -- and also were unsuccessful.
GORMAN: You needed top-down management, very forcefully, to reinforce all those OSHA regulations to make sure people had respiratory equipment. It just didn't happen.
REPORTER: Gorman says this top-down push for safety enforcement should have come from Mayor Giuliani. Adams agrees it would have helped. Former Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall says she, also, was confused.
WEINSHALL: God knows, I walked down there numerous times, and sometimes I took my respirator off. You know, you’d walk around. You’d see other workers without respirators. You’d say the air is not that bad. I’ll just take it off.
REPORTER: Adams and his boss, DDC Commissioner Ken Holden, say there were periodic attempts to step up enforcement. Sometimes, there was limited improvement, but it never lasted long. Gorman and others say that as the rescue effort gave way to recovery and cleanup, for local and federal regulators . . .
GORMAN: . . . there should have been a zero-tolerance policy, and that means if you were caught on the pile without proper respiratory equipment you should been taken off the pile and not allowed to work there.
REPORTER: Workers were ejected, but only very rarely, and the companies were never seriously sanctioned. Holden says Giuliani never gave him the “political cover” to halt operations or to force contractors and city agencies to make workers wear masks or risk getting kicked off Ground Zero. Holden tried to curtail firefighters’ work hours at Ground Zero, and he tried to impose a mid-November break for Veterans Day break. In a 2005 court deposition, he described the violent demonstrations that ensued.
HOLDEN: My one go at shutting down the site was -- was not a very satisfactory experience.
REPORTER: Holden is talking to an attorney representing construction workers and emergency responders suing the city.
HOLDEN: There was tremendous dissatisfaction by the families of victims that there was not progress to help find remains of loved ones. -Q. Aside from the families of victims, did anybody else tell you not to stop the work at the site? A. I probably got some notification from City Hall, but I'm not certain as to whether or not that was -- you know, who delivered that message.
REPORTER: Still, Holden and Adams are proud of DDC's safety record. Amid all the chaos, there was not a single death and almost no serious injuries in the 9-and-a-half-month project. Holden says workers knew about the air problems and the need to wear masks, just like smokers know their cigarettes carry a health warning from the Surgeon General. Not exactly, says David Newman, from the New York Committee of Occupational Safety and Health, a union-related workplace watchdog.
NEWMAN: It's really inappropriate to blame the workers for not wearing their respirators. When workers don't wear their respirators, or when workers don't work properly, it's a failure of the employer to provide the appropriate training and motivation, or, if that’s not entirely successful to control and discipline or remove the workers.
REPORTER: Today, former construction worker John Yannucci says, yes, he knew he should have been using his respirator more, but it was impossible.
YANNUCCI: Most of the time the respiratory mask is off, 'cause I gotta lotta talking to do. I gotta talk to the foremen. I gotta talk to the men. If I put on the respirator and I go like this [muffles voice], can you hear me? 'I need you over on the south side, I need you over . . . ' So I had to take it off. A lot of people had to take it off and put it on and then take it off and put it on. Meanwhile, you got particles in the air. We don't see it. But the city and the state said the air was good, so we really didn't care.
REPORTER: And while after a couple weeks at the worksite, overall the air seemed to have cleared, there was never a time when the dust had truly settled.
YANNUCCI: We had to move those big heavy beams, the dust phhhhhh pops right up! It was like sweeping the floor. When you sweep the floor, it gets dusty. Same thing.
REPORTER: 40-year-old Yannucci looks healthy, but breathing problems and physical discomfort forced him to stop working almost five years ago.
YANNUCCI: My body started changing. Gradually, I started getting weaker and weaker and weaker, and then I started passing out. I couldn't go from one exit to another exit, doing these potholes and carrying a 95-lb jackhammer any more. It's too heavy for me. I get out of breath. I used to be the No. 1 Jackhammer.
REPORTER: Yannucci is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit. He isn’t even sure all his problems can be attributed to working at Ground Zero, since he spent 25 years, as he says, “grinding concrete all over New York and New Jersey.” But he wonders why city and federal leaders – and especially Mayor Giuliani – in struggling to restore order in Lower Manhattan didn’t struggle harder to protect him and other workers from environmental dangers. For WNYC, I’m Fred Mogul.
This story was done with the help of archivist Andy Lanset and WNYC’s Beth Fertig, Amy Eddings, and Andrea Bernstein.