New York, NY —
In his run for President, Mayor Rudy Giuliani has showcased his leadership on 9/11 and in the days, weeks, and months that followed. His actions in those days have been widely hailed. But far less understood is how he responded to early concerns about the air quality in Lower Manhattan. WNYC’s Andrea Bernstein has the first of two reports.
REPORTER: After the initial shock of the attacks, it took less than 24 hours for reporters to start raising questions.
REPORTER: How about asbestos, because the buildings had a lot of asbestos?
GIULIANI: There are concerns about asbestos and at this point it does not appear as if there is an undue amount of asbestos in the atmosphere but those are very preliminary tests.
REPORTER: Very early on, both the city and the federal environmental protection agency had data that showed spikes in the levels of asbestos in Lower Manhattan. The official interpretation was that those levels were anomalies. All information was coming through daily briefings held by Mayor Giuliani.
That week, the pressure to reopen Wall Street was immense. Kathryn Wylde, head of the New York City partnership, was in on early meetings.
WYLDE: There was talk by the banking regulators of having business and financial services institutions moving their operations 300 miles outside New York so they would be a quote nuclear distance away.
REPORTER: By September 17 the New York Stock exchange was reopened in a Lower Manhattan that was visibly cleaner.
Not far away, residents who lived close to the World Trade Center were beginning to feel sick.
FIELDS: People were complaining about burning skin, irritated throats and other respiratory problems.
REPORTER: C. Virginia Fields was the Manhattan Borough President. She says symptoms started early.
On October 3, thousands of Lower Manhattan residents showed up at meeting at a hotel on Wall Street to hear from government officials.
WOMAN: I live in Southbridge Towers, which is huge, and our building office manager told me to clean up my dust myself, that there’s nothing wrong with it.
REPORTER: Joel Miele, head of the city Department of Environmental Protection was reassuring.
MIELE: Asbestos is not a problem if its dust on your furniture or dust on your windowsills. It becomes a problem when it goes from dust on the windowsills to ambient in the air, because that way you could ingest it into your lungs. You could eat asbestos it wouldn’t bother you in the least. But if it gets into your lungs it’s a health hazard.
REPORTER:The city had directed landlords to have apartments professionally cleaned. But at the same time the city issued guidelines for residents. They were told to clean up using wet mops or vacuums with special filters, and many didn’t realize they were handling materials that usually required special protective gear. There was widespread confusion.
Community Board One Chair Madelyn Wils presided over that meeting. She spoke to WNYC in 2002.
WILS: It was very difficult for us to communicate directly with the department commissioners; given the fact that Giuliani made it pretty clear that he would make all decisions.
REPORTER:With his police commissioner Bernard Kerik at his side, every day Giuliani would chair meetings with relevant officials at pier 84.
Chris Ward, a top port authority official at the time, described them.
WARD: FEMA was there, EPA was there, FAA was there, all the city, state paramilitary organizations were there and it was just to manage the aftermath.
REPORTER: There was another set of daily meetings. On the Friday after 9/11, Congressman Jerrold Nadler set up the Ground Zero Elected Officials task force. Skeptical of official assurances, they decided to conduct their own air quality tests. Alan Gerson, then a candidate for city council, had worked in a law firm representing victims of asbestos poisoning.
GERSON: I got in touch with some of the asbestos fiber measurement experts.
REPORTER: One night, City Councilwoman Kathryn Freed got out her city council police ID, and took the scientists to Lower Manhattan. Here’s how Gerson describes it:
GERSON: And we literally snuck them past the barricades and they took the first independent measurements of both air quality and asbestos debris within residential apartments.
REPORTER: Their tests found elevated levels of hazardous materials. Nadler submitted the written report to the Giuliani administration, along with a series of memos addressing community concerns. But he says while other issues on the memos were handled immediately, air quality concerns were simply not addressed.
NADLER: So we know they responded to things in those memos but they ignored all the stuff in them regarding air pollution.
REPORTER: Same memo?
NADLER: Same memo.
REPORTER: One part of it said help get seniors their drugs, they did, another said, the air is unsafe.
NADLER: And they ignored it. The responded to many things in those memos and they responded pretty well to many things in those memos, but not anything related to the air pollution.
REPORTER: On air quality, Nadler was seen as a gadfly. Privately, administration officials belittled him. “There was a lot of testosterone flying around in those days” one high-level official told us. “And health wasn’t seen as a high-testosterone issue.”
In the daily meetings, half a dozen people who were there told us, the pressure of issues was intense. Federal data seemed reassuring. Here’s former transportation commissioner Iris Weinshall:
WEINSHALL: At no time did I hear around that table that people shouldn’t be coming back to Lower Manhattan, that there were issues about the health in Lower Manhattan.
REPORTER:Outside those meetings, Giuliani publicly broadcast that message. Here he is on September 30, 2001.
GIULIANI: There is a lot of questions about the air quality because there are at times in downtown Manhattan and then sometimes even further beyond that, a very strong odor. The odor is really just from the fire and the smoke that continues to go on. It is monitored constantly and is not in any way dangerous. It is well below any level of problems and any number of ways in which you test it.
REPORTER: In the first week of October 2001 environmental lawyer Joel Kupferman organized a press conference.
KUPFERMAN: This report says there is 2.1 percent asbestos found in one of the samples. That is more twice the amount, which is one percent, which the federal government declares is as asbestos problem.
REPORTER: At the press conference, now Lt. Governor – then State Senator David Paterson – spoke about the drive to re-open Lower Manhattan.
PATERSON: We certainly commend that but we cannot engage in that kind of conduct at the possible expense of the individuals who live and work there.
REPORTER: But Chris Ward, the former port authority official, maintains there was no slowing down.
WARD: I’m not sure that there was the political will or capacity to do that given this just enormous focus on we can’t let this linger. We have to – you know the picture of the president the image of the president with the bullhorn was the image that people wanted and when Americans are in that can-do mode, mistakes get made.
REPORTER: By October 26, 2001, the brew of environmental questions hit the cover of the Daily News. Journalist Juan Gonzalez’s story, “Toxic Zone,” raised questions about the levels of benzene, dioxins and PCBS at the site.
GIULIANI: Let’s do the Daily News first. The Daily News today had a story about how the zone is a “toxic danger.” And the reality is that although obviously very, very close to where the work is being done there are dangers and risks, the reality is far different than the way the article described it.
REPORTER: And to back that up, Giuliani brought forward his health commissioner, Dr. Neal Cohen:
COHEN: We don’t believe that there any risks here with respect to long term health effects and that occasional uptick in elevated readings that are taken with some of these with pollutants, generally those return to acceptable levels.
REPORTER: Cohen says today he and other city officials were quote “relying on data provided by the experts from the federal government as the basis for their conclusions at the time.”
Dr. Phillip Landrigan of the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine has studied those afflicted with World Trade Center-related illnesses, some 20,000, or more, by his count. He says it should have been clear the air in Lower Manhattan was not safe.
LANDRIGAN: And I'm not just talking about the cloud I'm not just talking about the first 24, 48 hrs. For a period of many weeks the air in Lower Manhattan was not safe. And people who lived and worked there should have been told clearly that the air was not safe. They should have been told clearly to take precautions. And it’s my view that had they been given clear information that there would be fewer sick people today.
REPORTER: Former Mayor Giuliani continues to maintain his actions and decisions at the time were correct. For WNYC, I’m Andrea Bernstein
despite requests, WNYC was not granted an interview with Rudy Giuliani for this story.
This story was done with the help of archivist Andy Lanset and WNYC’s Beth Fertig, Amy Eddings, and Fred Mogul. The engineer was Wayne Shulmister.