A Long Island 9/11 Responder shares story to heal and connect others with healthcare

John Nistico, Electrician from Long Island who volunteered with the American Red Cross during the 9/11 Response as their HAM radio operator

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This past September marked the 16th anniversary of the 9/11 disaster, a time when the news is often reporting on the deaths of 9/11 responders who are passing away from their 9/11-related illnesses. Behind these headlines are the living responders and their families who live in trepidation, fearing that they too will succumb to conditions incurred from their exposures at Ground Zero. It is estimated that 400,000 responders along with survivors (area workers and students) have been exposed to the toxicants present after the WTC collapse. The death toll from 9/11 related illnesses, conditions such as cancer, respiratory disease and mental health conditions leading to suicide is staggering. The 9/11 Remembered Park in Neconset, New York is adding about 130 names to their memorial this year in honor of those who lost their lives just this year alone, bringing the total number of names on their memorial to around 800. While this community suffers major losses, individuals left behind are experiencing survivor’s guilt and anxiety about the future while doing their best to take of one another.

Responders interviewed near the anniversary told the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health that nearly everyone they worked with during the 9/11 response had either passed away or is sick with one of the conditions related to their 9/11 exposure. They also said that the anniversary is a tough time, filled with flashbacks and reoccurring nightmares. One of these responders, John Nistico, an electrician from Long Island who volunteered with the American Red Cross operating their HAM Radio during the 9/11 response, told NYCOSH that he wants to let other responders know that they are not alone during this time and that help is available. The following is a Q&A with Nistico on his response work, his experience fighting 9/11-related conditions, and his message to fellow responders.

NYCOSH Question: What was your involvement in the 9/11 response?

John Nistico Answer: I was one of the first HAM radio operators for the American Red Cross. I arrived near Ground Zero at 3:30 in the morning on September 12th. Radio was the backbone for the entire infrastructure on everything that went on down there. We were given two radios, power supply, an antenna, and instructions on our operating procedures, but we were not told what we would be exposed to nor what we were walking in to. In fact, we were not even supplied with respirators or even dust masks. The first 72 hours of the response came through us (Red Cross HAM Radio). Every piece of equipment, meal, man power. Everything that went on came through the Red Cross. There were only two of us, two operators. We were told that it would be a 72-hour shift and then we would be relieved. I got home on October 9th.

I had no contact with anybody (family/friends). The Red Cross got messages back to my family but I had no direct contact the whole time I was down there. We handled every request that went to the Red Cross in Brooklyn. If they said 500 people were coming in for lunch, we would make sure there were 500 hot meals. If they needed a special piece of equipment, they made the request to us, and we would get it.

NYCOSH Question:  What were the conditions like at Ground Zero and what, if any, were the protections against exposure to the WTC-derived contaminants?

 John Nistico Answer: We all had the WTC-cough; everyone who was working down there had it. When I arrived on the 12th, the dust on the street was ankle-to calf deep, and everything was covered in gray. It was like watching black and white TV and the most we were ever given was dust masks. You could probably smell at least half a dozen distinct odors. Burnt paper, charred sheet rock, melting metal, tar that they used to use in the old light fixture ballasts, burning installation of wiring, burning flesh, and then days and weeks afterwards the decay that started to follow. I will probably never be able to get out of my head. Responders were sleeping on the street, and the street like I said at the time was under 6 inches of debris.

People were bringing food right out on the pile. You’re ingesting that toxic environment. I understand people don’t want to leave their posts, but they have to take into consideration what you’re doing to your body. What you’re working on, is what you’re taking in, ingesting, through your pores, drinking it, breathing it. Guys were leaving open bottles of drinking water.

I have been in construction since I was 15 years old, I got to know from an electrical aspect that a lot of the wiring and the ballast that we used in the florescent lights had PCBs in them and we had to know that there was a lot of the original fireproofing that was most likely asbestos-based. But that being said, I did what I had to do. Responders were not provided for adequately by anybody. We were given no equipment, instructions, or training, they just said go setup and get operational.

NYCOSH Question: When did you first start experiencing symptoms related to 9/11?

John Nistico Answer:

Right away there is the nightmares and the cold sweats. Long term I have been on an antidepressant since 2002. I have PTSD. Which is kind of iconic, because you’d think for a war veteran who has seen combat, you would think I would suffer from it before that, but it actually took this event to get me to that point. Today is the first time I have been back here (near the WTC site) since 2001. Prior to that I have not been further south than Madison Square Garden. I would not venture south in NYC.

Shortly after 9/11, a pattern started developing. I would get a sinus infection, they (private doctors) would put me on steroids, nasal sprays, and it would go away and then 45 days to 2 months later, the process would start all over again. It got to a point where I went to an Ears, Nose, and Throat specialist and he told me I had stuff embedded into my cavities. They removed 52 sinus polyps and my septum was so deviated they had to break my nose and put a plate in to get my sinuses to straighten out. I had to sleep sitting up in a chair for 10 days, it was horrible. I had my first sinus surgery in 2004. I am looking to go in for my 3rd one. I’m waiting on the World Trade Center Health Program to verify my papers. Right around 9/11 every year, I start getting the nightmares and the flashbacks no matter how much I medication I take.

NYCOSH Question: How is it impacting you today?

John Nistico Answer:

My involvement with the 9/11 response touches every aspect of my life, every single day. I feel very fortunate that I have suffered only marginally as opposed to friends of mine who are no longer with us, or friends of mine who walk around with oxygen bottles because they can no longer walk up a flight of steps. It’s tough to see friends who responded that I grew up with who are homebodies now because they are in such poor health. It’s a tragedy to realize a guy who probably spent as much time as I spent (responding) died and he was sitting right next to me and you ask yourself ‘why not me? why is that there are so many people worse off than I am and there’s no reason or explanation for it other than it isn’t God’s will?’ I hopefully won’t be one of those statistics, but if I am hopefully someone will benefit from what I did.

What is your message to folks?

Everyone who was down there should do something to take care of their health.  Everything about first responders and their health has been said but the problem is that it’s being ignored. Stop ignoring us. People are dying and people put their lives on the line and on the hold to help our government and our people in order to bring people closure in a time of need. The message I have for responders is twofold. Responders need to reach out and let others know (about the WTC Health Program). The other message is that they’re not alone. There are people out there who have been through what they’re going through, who are willing to talk to them. The more people we reach with this message, the more people we may be able to save. Because the person who is going to suffer and die from a 9/11-related illness can’t be the same person that we didn’t reach. In the spirit of HAM radio, communication is everything.

If you or someone you know was involved in the 9/11 rescue, recovery or cleanup, please contact NYCOSH for more information on healthcare and compensation related to 9/11 exposure.