September 7, 2021 / Ina Xhani

OEHS Professionals Recall 9/11

Twenty years ago, on September 11, 2001, many firefighters, emergency medical technicians, police officers, and other first responders put their lives on the line to save victims of the World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorist attacks. Many industrial hygienists and occupational and environmental health and safety professionals mobilized to keep these heroic responders as safe and healthy as possible. A video on AIHA’s YouTube channel commemorates members’ contributions. Below are selected excerpts from the video, edited for length and clarity.

How AIHA Members Got Involved

Ken Martinez, CIH: I was working with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, specifically the Hazard Evaluation and Technical Assistance Branch (HETAB). We serve as a consulting company to the nation for occupational safety and health issues. I remember when the World Trade Center first collapsed, NIOSH had a team from HETAB on the ground on day two, and it was decided that we needed to support the activities at the World Trade Center. So we sent our first team in to conduct a lot of exposure monitoring. It was a team, I think, of about 10 the first time. I was on the second team, nine to 10 days later. We had two medical officers and another complement of health physicists, our field technician, and the rest were industrial hygienists. Again, our task was to monitor the rescue workers at Ground Zero. We deployed from a small school within a walk of Ground Zero, and we spent the next nine days sampling for everything you could imagine: silica, asbestos, carbon monoxide, just an array of different things.

Bernard L. Fontaine, CIH, CSP, FAIHA: I was involved with the United States Public Health Service under contract for Region Three. When the disaster struck, I was working on a contract in West Virginia, and they asked me to come up to New York immediately. So we drove there, eight hours, and we started to help the people in the federal building downtown, FBI people who were coming in, who were undercover. [Our task was to] fit test them and develop a program to make sure that they were accountable when they were going in and out of the site. We worked on that site for several days, and then we were transitioned to the Fresh Kills Landfill, which was the site for sifting through all the debris, the human remains, and then collect all those remains. During my tenure there over the next several months, I was basically making sure that everyone who was there—the Secret Service, FBI, and New York Police Department—were wearing respirators, they were fit tested, and they were wearing the protective clothing.

Mark Drozdov: The recovery effort is where I got involved working with the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the MTA, in restoring the services of the subway and nine lines that were damaged.

The Dangers First Responders Faced

KM: When we deployed, much was unknown at the time. For example, when we transitioned to recovery, backhoes would dig through the pile, and we’d see different colors of flames come out. That was indicative of the different types of materials that were burning. So the risks were unknown. We knew that there was potential for asbestos. We knew that there was potential for dust. Bear in mind, we were working on Ground Zero. We were required to wear respirators the whole time, but we also had bodysuits to help keep the dust from collecting on us.

MD: As first responders, we were called in to initially assess the damage, namely looking at the Court Street Station, which was almost totally destroyed. We had to go in and evaluate what became a confined space. We would test for the oxygen levels, the carbon monoxide levels, the hydrogen sulfide levels, and other toxic gases. We would also evaluate for the lower explosive limits and the explosive atmospheres—you know, the full gamut of what we normally do for a confined space, and that was within an area that was structurally unstable. We had the fire department personnel there and others, all wearing PPE that included respiratory protection. And we didn't know what filters to use because we really didn't know what kind of contaminants existed down there. We were the initial team going in evaluating it and doing the exposure assessment.

BF: Probably one of the most significant hazards for people who were conducting the sampling was walking on the pile and the uncertainty of the unstable ground. For the rescue workers themselves, it was all over the board. We saw heavy machinery, power tools, and gasoline-powered tools that were being used. And in some instances, they weren't wearing gloves. They weren't wearing eye protection. They weren't wearing respirators. So it was our job to try to educate them.

But more important are the mental health issues. I was very concerned. It was a very solemn affair, and it really had an impact. I worked on many emergency response fatalities through federal OSHA as a compliance officer in both Region One and Region Six. But the magnitude of mental health issues was more immediate when you were actually up close and personal with all of what's going on, on a day-to-day basis.

Other Memories of 9/11

MD: I was so overwhelmed with what I saw that morning, I didn’t remember where I parked my car. When I found it, I realized I had left my keys inside the ignition with the doors locked, so I couldn't even get in. And when I asked the uniformed personnel that were around me, they all said to go to the nearest firehouse. I found the firehouse a few blocks away, and there was one fireman, a young fireman. I explained my predicament with the car. And he looked kind of flushed and, without saying a word, he helped me to open my doors without a key. After thanking him I asked how the tragedy had affected his firehouse, and that's when he told me he was the sole survivor. All the others perished the morning of 9/11.

BF: The New York Police Department gave me a little bit of pushback. They didn't believe they needed to wear respirators. And I had tried to explain to some of them, some of the sergeants and the leadership there, that this debris contained respirable silica. It contained lead. It contained asbestos fibers, which were suspected carcinogens. And I wanted them to know that just because they were working outdoors did not make any difference and respirators were required. This went on for a little while, and then I passed a chaplain who was walking through the debris piles. I said, "Father, I need your help. I've been trying to talk to your law enforcement officers from the New York Police Department, and I wanted to make sure they understood that these are hazards that need to be taken care of." And he blew his whistle and stopped the operation immediately. He asked them all to gather around and explained the situation. From then on, they wore their respirators diligently. They got fit tested, and they did everything I had asked them to do.

KM: When we first arrived, it was in the middle of the night by plane. They already had those spotlights as a tribute. I remember the emotion I felt seeing that.

Read more about OEHS professionals’ experiences on Sept. 11, 2001, in The Synergist: “Looking Back on 9/11” and “Exposures at the World Trade Center.”

Ina Xhani

Ina Xhani is AIHA’s communications specialist.


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