Ground Zero Illnesses Clouding Giuliani’s Legacy
By ANTHONY DePALMA
May 11, 2007
Anyone who watched Rudolph W. Giuliani preside over ground zero in the days
after 9/11 glimpsed elements of his strength: decisiveness, determination, self-confidence.
Those qualities were also on display over the months he directed the cleanup
of the collapsed World Trade Center. But today, with evidence that thousands
of people who worked at ground zero have become sick, many regard Mr. Giuliani’s
triumph of leadership as having come with a human cost.
An examination of Mr. Giuliani’s handling of the extraordinary recovery operation
during his last months in office shows that he seized control and largely limited
the influence of experienced federal agencies. In doing that, according to some
experts and many of those who worked in the trade center’s ruins, Mr. Giuliani
might have allowed his sense of purpose to trump caution in the rush to prove
that his city was not crippled by the attack.
Administration documents and thousands of pages of legal testimony filed in
a lawsuit against New York City, along with more than two dozen interviews with
people involved in the events of the last four months of Mr. Giuliani’s administration,
show that while the city had a safety plan for workers, it never meaningfully
enforced federal requirements that those at the site wear respirators.
At the same time, the administration warned companies working on the pile that
they would face penalties or be fired if work slowed. And according to public
hearing transcripts and unpublished administration records, officials also on
some occasions gave flawed public representations of the nature of the health
threat, even as they privately worried about exposure to lawsuits by sickened
“The city ran a generally slipshod, haphazard, uncoordinated, unfocused
response to environmental concerns,” said David Newman, an industrial hygienist
with the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, a labor group.
City officials and a range of medical experts are now convinced that the dust
and toxic materials in the air around the site were a menace. More than 2,000
New York City firefighters have been treated for serious respiratory problems.
Seventy percent of nearly 10,000 recovery workers screened at Mount Sinai Medical
Center have trouble breathing. City officials estimate that health care costs
related to the air at ground zero have already run into the hundreds of millions
of dollars, and no one knows whether other illnesses, like cancers, will emerge.
The question of who, if anyone, is to blame for not adequately protecting the
workers could finally be decided in United States District Court in Manhattan,
where thousands of firefighters, police officers and other recovery workers
are suing the city for negligence.
City officials have always maintained that they acted in good faith to protect
everyone at the site but that many workers chose not to wear available safety
equipment, for a variety of reasons.
Mr. Giuliani has said very little publicly about how his leadership might have
influenced the behavior of the men and women who worked at ground zero. Mr.
Giuliani, whose image as a 9/11 hero has been a focus of his run for president,
declined to be interviewed for this article. His representatives did not respond
to specific questions about the pace of the cleanup, the hazards at the site
and Mr. Giuliani’s reticence about the workers’ illnesses.
Moreover, many of the people who ran agencies for Mr. Giuliani or who handled
responsibility for the health issues after he left office would not comment,
citing the pending litigation.
In the past, Mr. Giuliani has said that quickly reopening the financial district
was essential for healing New York and the nation. The cost of Wall Street’s
going dark was enormous, and Mr. Giuliani has said he was forced to balance
competing interests as he confronted a never-imagined emergency, and he acknowledged
that he and others made mistakes.
A Mayor in Control
From the beginning, there was no doubt that Mr. Giuliani and his team ruled
the hellish disaster site. Officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency,
the Army Corps of Engineers and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration,
all with extensive disaster response experience, arrived almost immediately,
only to be placed on the sideline. One Army Corps official said Mr. Giuliani
acted like a “benevolent dictator.”
Despite the presence of those federal experts, Mr. Giuliani assigned the ground
zero cleanup to a largely unknown city agency, the Department of Design and
Construction. Kenneth Holden, the department’s commissioner until January 2004,
said in a deposition in the federal lawsuit against the city that he initially
expected FEMA or the Army Corps to try to take over the cleanup operation. Mr.
Giuliani never let them.
In this environment, the mayor’s take-charge attitude produced two clear results,
according to records and interviews. One, work moved quickly. Although the cleanup
was expected to last 30 months, the pit was cleared by June 2002, nine months
after the attack.
And second, the city ultimately became responsible for thousands of workers
and volunteers while, critics say, its health and safety standards went lacking.
“I would describe it as a conspiracy of purpose,” said Suzanne Mattei,
director of the New York office of the Sierra Club, which has been critical
of how the cleanup was handled. “It wasn’t people running around saying,
‘Don’t do this safely.’ But there was a unified attempt to do everything as
fast as possible, to get everything up and running as fast as possible. Anything
in the way of that just tended to be ignored.”
Records show that the city was aware of the danger in the ground zero dust
from the start. In a federal court deposition, Kelly R. McKinney, associate
commissioner at the city’s health department in 2001, said the agency issued
an advisory on the night of Sept. 11 stating that asbestos in the air made the
site hazardous and that everyone should wear masks.
Many workers refused. No one wanted to be slowed down while there was still
a chance of rescuing people. Later on, workers said that the available respirators
were cumbersome and made it difficult for them to talk.
Violations of federal safety rules abounded, and no one strictly enforced them.
OSHA did not play an active role during the rescue phase, which is usually the
case in emergency operations. But the agency remained in a strictly advisory
position long after there was any hope of finding any survivors and at the point
when, in other circumstances, it would have enforced safety requirements.
Agency officials said that enforcing rules and issuing fines would have delayed
the cleanup, and contractors could have passed along the cost of the fines to
With the city in charge, municipal employees were given video cameras to record
recovery workers who were not wearing respirators. Violations were reported
at daily safety meetings.
An official who was then with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey,
who asked not to be quoted by name because he was not authorized to speak for
the agency, said the focus in safety discussions was always on preventing accidents,
not protecting workers from the toxic dust.
Remarkably, not one fatal accident occurred on the pile. But the city’s inspectors
found that by late October, only 29 percent of ground zero workers were wearing
the sophisticated respirators that were required by OSHA. Even Mr. Giuliani
sometimes showed up without one.
The city’s handling of safety issues has been criticized by doctors, unions
and occupational safety experts. Mr. Giuliani’s oversight of the operation was
condemned in a 2006 book, “Grand Illusion,” by Wayne Barrett, a longtime
critic of the former mayor, and Dan Collins. Mr. Barrett said in an interview
that when it came to safety, Mr. Giuliani “said all the right things, but
did all the wrong things.”
In their defense against the negligence lawsuit, city officials have maintained
that they cooperated with federal officials to develop an effective safety plan.
On Nov. 20, well into the cleanup, contractors and city agencies agreed to follow
safety rules, and OSHA agreed not to fine them if violations occurred.
The agency ended up distributing more than 130,000 respirators. Workers’ unions
tried to get members to wear them, but usage remained spotty without strict
enforcement of the rules.
“What they were doing on paper wasn’t what they were doing in practice,”
said Paul J. Napoli, one of the lawyers representing the more than 8,000 workers
who have sued the city for negligence. He said that the construction companies
were billing the city for their time and materials, and “safety slows things
The four large construction companies that had been hired to clear debris worked
around the clock. But that was not fast enough for the city, especially after
the rescue operation formally ended on Sept. 29. One reason for the push may
have been concern that unnecessary delays would have added to the cost of the
Two days after the rescue efforts ended and the full-scale recovery and cleanup
began, Michael Burton, executive deputy commissioner of the Design and Construction
Department, warned one of the companies in a letter that the city would fire
individual workers or companies “if the highest level of efficiency is
Danger in the Air
Much has been said and written about Christie Whitman , then the Environmental
Protection Agency administrator, and her statement a week after the towers fell
that the air in New York was safe. But even then, the air above the debris pile
was known to be more dangerous than the air in the rest of Lower Manhattan.
In those first days after 9/11, Mr. Giuliani made it clear that workers needed
to wear masks at ground zero because it was more contaminated than elsewhere.
But as time went on, and workers failed to heed the warnings, the record indicates
that his administration sometimes said otherwise.
Even after the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found that
workers were “unnecessarily exposed” to health hazards, officials
played down the danger.
Robert Adams, director of environmental health and safety services at the Design
and Construction Department, told the City Council’s environmental committee
in early November that even unprotected ground zero workers would not experience
long-term health risks. In an interview last week, Mr. Adams, now working for
a consulting firm in Princeton, N.J., said that he still believed that based
on the information available at the time, the right decisions were made.
Whatever they were saying publicly about the safety of the air, Mr. Giuliani
and his staff were privately worried. A memo to Deputy Mayor Robert M. Harding
from his assistant in early October said that the city faced as many as 10,000
liability claims connected to 9/11, “including toxic tort cases that might
arise in the next few decades.”
The warning did not lead to a crackdown on workers without respirators. Rather,
a month later, Mr. Giuliani wrote to members of the city’s Congressional delegation
urging passage of a bill that capped the city’s liability at $350 million. And
two years after Mr. Giuliani left office, FEMA appropriated $1 billion for a
special insurance company to defend the city against 9/11 lawsuits.
Some experts and critics have suggested that the only way the respirator rules
could have been enforced after rescue operations ended would have been to temporarily
shut down the site and lay down the law: No respirator, no work. And they say
the only person who could have done so was Mr. Giuliani.
“They should have backed off on the night shift, when a very limited amount
of work could be done,” said Charles Blaich, who was in charge of safety
for the Fire Department at the time of the attack.
Mr. Blaich, who is now retired, said he considers Mr. Giuliani’s unwillingness
to enforce respirator rules a failure of judgment, not a mistake, because no
one had ever faced such a crisis.
‘Mistake’ indicates there was a known procedure that wasn’t followed,”
he said. “There just was not that much logistics in place to support another
course of action.”
Help for the Sick
Millions of Americans saw television news reports of Mr. Giuliani attending
firefighters’ funerals. They heard him call those who died heroes.
But they have not heard him say much about the medical problems of ground zero
workers. Although he pushed Congress to protect the city from lawsuits, he has
generally stood on the sidelines as New York’s delegation tried to get the federal
government to pay for the treatment that sick workers need.
“I don’t think I ever saw the mayor at a 9/11 hearing on health,”
said Representative Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat whose district includes parts
of Brooklyn and Manhattan. Mr. Nadler, who was one of the first to criticize
the city’s handling of ground zero, said it never occurred to him or to other
Democrats in Congress to ask for Mr. Giuliani’s help to influence the Republican
John T. Odermatt, who was Mr. Giuliani’s deputy at the city’s Office of Emergency
Management, said that Mr. Giuliani had to make many decisions every day during
the crisis, but the priority always was “clearly more about people than
getting the site open.”
Mr. Odermatt, now speaking on behalf of Mr. Giuliani’s presidential campaign,
said he did not know whether the former mayor had ever lobbied Congress on behalf
of sick workers, and the campaign did not provide any information about Mr.
Giuliani’s working to secure federal funds for treatment of ground zero responders.
Many of those people are now sick, and they are angry.
Lee Clarke, director of health and safety for District Council 37 , the city’s
largest public employees’ union, said Mr. Giuliani used “very, very poor
judgment” in rushing to reopen the financial district without watching
out for the workers who cheered him at ground zero.
Ms. Clarke said that if those workers found themselves in a meeting with Mr.
Giuliani today, “a number of them would be standing up, wanting a piece
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company