At 10:54 AM on September 11, 2001, less than a half-hour after the collapse of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani placed a call to the studios of NY1, Gotham’s 24-hour cable news channel. It was the first of his justly famous public statements on the still unfolding tragedy. He spoke to the question that was on everyone’s minds: How many had been killed? “The end result is going to be some horrendous number of lives lost,” he told anchors Pat Kiernan and Sharon Dizenhuz. Later that day, at a press conference seen around the world, a stoic Giuliani sounded a similar note. “The number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear, ultimately.”
The tally was indeed grim—2,977 lost in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. The dead included 343 FDNY firefighters, 23 members of the NYPD, and 37 Port Authority police officers. The death toll that awful morning could have been much higher, as we know. An estimated 25,000 people were at work in the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Surely the terrorists were hoping to kill many more Americans than they did.
Fourteen years later, however, the killing continues. The cloud that enveloped lower Manhattan following the collapse of the towers contained a toxic mix of asbestos and silica from the fallen buildings’ walls, mercury from the tens of thousands of computers and fluorescent lights they contained, and benzene from the massive quantities of jet fuel that the airplanes were carrying. The fires that smoldered at Ground Zero were sustained by half a million liters of transformer oil from the skyscrapers’ electrical systems, 380,000 liters of heating and diesel oil, and gasoline from several thousand cars that had been parked in the garages beneath the buildings. The cops, firefighters, and emergency workers who descended upon “the pile” in the days and weeks after the attacks have over time exhibited higher than normal instances of respiratory diseases, gastrointestinal problems, mental illness, and cancer.
More law enforcement officers have died from 9/11-related illnesses than died during the attacks themselves. The NYPD has classified 84 officer deaths as resulting from 9/11-related illnesses, making it the second-leading all-time killer of New York’s Finest. Only gunfire has killed more Gotham cops. The FDNY has lost 92 firefighters to 9/11-related illnesses—a toll likely to skyrocket in coming years. As of May 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had certified 1,248 members of the FDNY as having cancers directly related to the 9/11 attacks. In September of last year, three retired FDNY firefighters died on the same day from 9/11-related illnesses. This week, the department added the names of 21 firefighters to a 9/11 memorial wall in the lobby of FDNY headquarters in Brooklyn. “No one can say how many lives September 11 will ultimately claim,” remarked Commissioner Daniel Nigro.
Nor has the long tail of death and disease been limited to first responders. As of this month, the federal September 11th Victim Compensation Fund has certified 12,150 claims and paid out more than $1.4 billion in assistance. To be eligible for compensation, victims and family members must prove that they “suffered from, or died as a result of, an illness or injury directly related to the 9/11 crashes.” Claims have been paid to residents, visitors, and tourists who happened to be in downtown Manhattan that crisp, cloudless September morning.
Marcy Borders was just weeks into her new job as a legal assistant at Bank of America on 9/11. Her office was on the 81st floor of the North Tower, a mere ten floors below where American Airlines Flight 11 crashed at 8:46 AM. In the ensuing chaos, Borders fled down a stairwell to her building’s lobby, arriving in time to be enveloped by the dust cloud created by the collapsing South Tower. Freelance photographer Stan Honda snapped the picture of Borders that became an iconic image of the disaster. Disoriented and covered head to toe in white powder, Borders would be known as the “dust lady.”
“I didn’t do a day’s work in nearly ten years and by 2011 I was a complete mess,” Borders said. “Every time I saw an aircraft, I panicked.” Late last year, Borders revealed that she was suffering from stomach cancer that she believed was 9/11-related. Borders died last month at the age of 42.
A generation has come of age since 9/11. With each passing year, the raw emotion Americans felt on that day recedes. To those suffering from 9/11-related illnesses, however, the carnage continues.