Thursday, October 23, 2014








Safely Home
I am home in heaven, dear ones;
oh, so happy and so bright!
There is a perfect joy and
beauty in the everlasting light.
All the pain and grief is over,
every restless tossing passed;
I am now at peace forever,
safely home in heaven at last.

(First verse of a Catholic Prayer for the Dead) 

(Thursday October 23, 2014, Queens, NYC)  On that fateful day 13 years ago St. Peter found himself a bit overwhelmed as thousands of dust cloaked, breathless, tired and confused New Yorkers suddenly congregated outside the Pearly Gates.  They were accountants and auditors, actuaries and administrators.  In their ranks were fire fighters and file clerks; maintenance men and police men.  It was not a motley crew by any stretch of the imagination.  Not at all.  Actually, it was a broad and wide mob of folks from the New York City Metropolitan Area who worked in our famed Twin Towers, the World Trade Center; those giant elevens that anchored Lower Manhattan for many years.  Those that perished there that day were swiftly ushered into heaven; a better place, a place of much needed respite.  Most likely there was one hell of a party up there that night given all the new residents had lived through to get there.

For many, that was the sum total of the day.  For those not related or connected directly to those who had died that day, it was a one-time massive tragedy of epic proportions.  The sights, sounds and smell of it still linger in the deepest recesses of those who survived the twin collapses or spent time on the rescue efforts that consumed all involved for as long as it took to come to terms with the fact that there would be no “rescue”; it would all be about the recovery of dead bodies.  Even all these years later surviving spouses and children awake in the middle of the night feeling the unscratchable itch of a phantom limb; the painful sensation of a husband, wife, mom or dad, brother or sister, coworker, colleague or friend, who was killed in that horrific murderous, evil act. Many of those who perpetrated that wickedly successful atrocity soon found out that Allah didn’t have 72 virgins waiting for them in whatever afterlife vermin such as them wind up in.

Cruelly, although the first blood in our battle against Muslim extremists was spilled on our soil, and the death toll of that day was too awful for many to comprehend at the time and to this day, the death toll here continues to rise.  Month by month, week by week, like the slow but achingly steady drip of a leaking faucet death continues to visit here and takes another fine and decent soul with him as he exits. 

Death was fickle and arbitrary on September 11, 2001.  Circumstance, happenstance and perhaps fate, or an alignment of the celestial bodies determined who survived in the Towers, who managed to escape the surreal madness of that morning and those whose lot was decidedly different.  The stories are legion, they tell a variety of tales; some almost obscenely quirky, others profoundly moving.  The religious would say it was all God’s will and those not possessed of that degree of faith quietly tell them to fuck off or ignore them completely.  For some the balancing act between wrenching grief, raging anger, self-doubt, and reality has consumed far too much of their emotional energy over the past 13 years.  13 years.  That is a long time but that day still burns and blisters the waking and sleeping hours of very many who felt the earth move literally beneath their feet as roiling clouds of the pulverized contents of 220 acres of office space, a million pounds of structural steel, untold metric yards of reinforced concrete, glass, asbestos, wiring, carpet and all the constituent elements of our Towers fell into their own footprints as the world stood witness.  As that raging cloud was shunted violently through the narrow canyons of Lower Manhattan maliciously obscuring the brilliant early autumn sun, every witness tried to gauge the death toll.  But, it was beyond calculation at that point, every New Yorker knew that upwards of 40,000 worked in those Towers daily and there was an enormous subterranean concourse seven stories deep, housing shops of all kinds, eateries and, of course the subways.

By a twist of luck Tuesday September 11, 2001 was an election day in New York City and most New Yorkers tend to vote early before they go to work.  That was indeed fortunate.  Had it been a regular Tuesday the death toll would have been exponentially higher.  Certainly each life lost was precious and the repercussions of those losses ripple through the Metropolitan Area to this day.  Death visited New York on that day not like a silent reaper in the night but as a malevolent purposeful force from out of clear powder blue cloudless skies.  But, death still stalks victims; men and women who spent time in the massive eight  months long efforts to clear the 16 acres debris field in search of human remains and any items that would provide proof positive of an identity of one of the unaccounted for victims.  It was as solemn a task as it was, at times, grisly.

Remarkably, on Friday May 31, 2002 the last remaining segment of structural steel draped with an American flag made its way up the ramp from the bottom of The Pit on a flatbed trailer as Members of the FDNY, NYPD, PAPD and other stood ramrod straight.  The removal of that final piece of one of the Towers was a milestone; it represented the conclusion of what had been a Herculean effort to clear the Site.  During the preceding months as the debris was removed and hauled off to barges that transported much of it to the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island where it was again sifted through with fine tooth combs, hundreds toiled amid the long smoldering wreckage.  Underground fires as well as pockets of flame amid the ground level debris smoldered for months emanating toxins and carcinogens that would eventually make the death too from 9-11-01 an ever increasing number.






It was not long after that final structural element was gone that the first real troubling signs emerged.  Men and women who had labored on The Pile (Ground Zero seems to be somehow disrespectful) and had no prior history of the symptoms they were presenting with were suddenly experiencing health problems.  At first, most of the effected were not alarmed by the new cough or sluggishness they were now dealing with.  Others did make the connection that their time spent on The Pile was likely the cause of the weight loss, tightness in the chest, lack of appetite and respiratory difficulties.  The FDNY who had lost 343 members on 9-11-01 was beginning to notice the uptick in sick calls and increasing complaints from MOS about their health.  They were not alone.  Steelworkers, Union Tradesmen, Police Officers and others were also beginning to feel that their health was not quite right. 

At this point the City was disregarding the notion that these people were getting sick because they had worked on The Pile.  Actually, the EPA and the City continued to deny any correlation for many more months.  Eventually, they had no choice as more and more of the effected began to clinically present with odd carcinomas, almost “exotic” malignancies that were most definitely “out of the ordinary” in some cases.  (The saga of how this situation was handled, the liability, financial responsibility and the City’s negligence and reluctance to admit what was causing these illnesses is an entirely tragically and shameful story for another time).

As the number of the suddenly stricken continued to mount, physicians in the NYC Metropolitan Area began to believe that the cases they were seeing were not “outliers”; that there was indeed a correlation between the diseases they were seeing and their patient population.  There was a significant spike in seeing patients who worked for FDNY, NYPD, PAPD, Department of Sanitation personnel as well as Ironworkers, dump and tow truck drivers, operating engineers and others with some connection to 9-11-01 and the Site.  Multiple Myeloma, liver, stomach, and colon adenocarcinomas with a troubling assortment of primary lung malignancies, pulmonary fibrosis, sarcomas, lymphomas and  leukemia were being positively diagnosed and it was becoming clear, at least to the majority of the medical professionals involved in treating these patients, that there was one common denominator linking them all; they had all been present at The World Trade Center Plaza on 9-11-01, spent time on the rescue and recovery efforts in the days following the twin collapses or they had labored over a protracted period of time at The Pile or at the screening/sifting site at Fresh Kills. 


As 2002 gave way to 2003 it was not long before the first of these patients succumbed to their illness.  The realization that many of the sick were dealing with terminal disease was a huge body blow that sent entire families reeling.  As the patient list grew so did the number of doctors and hospitals specifically designated for the care and treatment of this very narrow list of patients.  The list of “officially recognized post 9-11 diseases” now stands at 58.  Within the tightly knit circles of the FDNY and NYPD, Brothers were watching Brothers die.  A well circumscribed segment of the population was contending with this new, stark reality as a group as well as individual families.  The toll post 9-11 disease was extracting to a still mourning FDNY was perhaps the cruelest.  The FDNY, more than any other City Service, is and has always been a “family affair”.  Sons follow Dads, cousins follow cousins into the ranks and it was not unusual at all for some extended families to have lost several members on that fateful day and by a disproportional rate, more MOS of the FDNY were falling ill, some very seriously.  Other Agencies including the NYPD and PAPD that did not suffer the same death rate as the FDNY did on September 11 were also seeing colleagues develop maladies directly related to their exposure working The Pile over the almost nine months it took to clear that 16 acre site. 

For those who weren’t sick, the specter of impending illness was a daunting psychological battle.  There were also other psychological battles, some more difficult to ascertain, with others becoming more and more obvious.  Many other MOS from FDNY, NYPD and PAPD were wracked by the haunting imagery and “survivor’s guilt”.  Others had fallen into the depths of profound depression and there were unusually high incidences of heavy drinking and suicide in FDNY and NYPD.  September 11, 2001 killed and is still killing in a host of awful ways to this very day. 


Somebody asked the other day, “How does a person allow one single day to define the rest of one’s life?”  The only valid answer is, “How could it not?”  That date serves as such a distinct partition between what was and what is and the memories of that experience for survivors and recovery workers alike are forever etched on the deepest part of their souls.  Some memories never fade, they are never relegated to a dark recess of the mind nor should they be.  There seems to be for many an obligation to keep those memories fresh, not necessarily for sharing with others, but merely to preserve the honor, courage and sacrifice that were so much in evidence on that day.


Given the population density of the NYC Metropolitan Area and the approximately 16 million people who live here, there is no shortage of houses of worship for every creed, denomination and sect.  Cemetery space is just about impossible to secure anymore; cremation has become, as a necessity, the only viable alternative for those who die without a plot or a place in a family plot.  But the houses of worship are plentiful, and the turn out for a funeral Service is large especially when a long time congregant passes.  When MOS pass away they are sent off with full honors befitting the Service and Sacrifice that was such an integral facet of their life.  The days and weeks immediately after 9-11-01 saw a steady stream of funeral Services in churches, synagogues and other sacred halls from Nassau County to Nyack, from Far Rockaway to Farmingdale, from Park Slope to Morningside Heights.  At times it all seemed too much to bear; there is only so much grief a person can live with before they begin to drown in its cold, dark waters. 

But each death can be a celebration; a choice can be made particularly when an MOS passes.  By their very nature men and women compelled to work as a Civil Servant, as a Fire Fighter, EMT, or Police Officer, are people who are always prepared to give their life for another.  That is a potent and noble pact they make when they don the uniform of whichever Agency they are about to embark on a career with.


For us the living, obviously, life has gone on.  It has unfolded in a form and fashion that had never been dreamt about, considered or imagined.  Families have gone on, children have grown up, college degrees have been awarded and countless other of life’s many milestones have been reached by those who lost a mom or dad, a brother or sister or someone else they were particularly close to in the time before September 11, 2001. 
For far too many others their lives have become struggles against the ravages of diseases the likes of which they too could never have imagined.  So many live as they undergo rigorous chemotherapy and radiation treatment; dialysis and respiratory therapy.  Some take upwards of 30 prescription medications a day.  Once hale and hardy, full of life, strength and humor are now almost hollowed out husks keeping a private vigil with Death that sits in the dark corner of their room at night just waiting.  Death is patient and sometimes that patience is maddening. 


This was written and dedicated to all of those who were lost on September 11, 2001 and all who have died since of 9-11-01 related illnesses.  They will forever be remembered, respected and honored for their Service and Sacrifice.
May they all Rest in Peace in the presence of their God now that they are Safely Home.

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