A 9/11 story from West Virginia: “9/11 is not over, not by a long shot”

by Liam Lynch, NYCOSH’s WTCHP Coordinator

Terry Wright, Disaster Action Team Captain

with the American Red Cross from Huntington, West Virginia
terry-wright-picture

When you think about the 9/11 response, images of heroic firefighters hosting up the American flag or cops manning the bucket brigade may come to mind, but what is often left out of the narrative, are all those who responded from across the country to help New York City in its greatest time of need. Those volunteering with national disaster relief organizations, skilled tradesman lending their expertise, first responders from other counties/states donating their resources to the response, these responders lived, slept, and ate at Ground Zero for months. They worked alongside the city’s uniformed first responders pulling long shifts covered and coughing in contaminated dust, breathing in toxic air while walking over twisted and burning steel to help find remains, all while working away from their family and friends. These responders gave their time, energy, and ultimately their health to the response. Today, these often overlooked responders are still trying to help.

Terry Wright, of Huntington, West Virginia, is one of these responders. Wright volunteered in the 9/11 response with the American Red Cross Disaster Relief serving as an experienced Disaster Action Team Captain. Wright worked with the American Red Cross that oversaw seven counties in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio specializing in Hazardous material response (HAZMAT). At 10:30AM on 9/11, his Red Cross unit received orders to assist with the response and Wright driving from West Virginia in a rented car arrived at what they called the “crime scene” in the early hours of September 12th. Wright didn’t leave until 8 months later when recovery was completed on May 30th, 2002. He lived in various locations throughout the city during his response efforts, at one point living at JFK in early 2002. Working 12-14 hour shifts a day, with only paper dusk masks in the first few months as protection from the toxic dust, and only later being fitted with respirators, Wright vividly remembers Christine Todd Whitman at Ground Zero telling the responders that the air was safe. Describing the physical and mental toil of the response efforts at Ground Zero, Wright says, “we all started to cough, there was a lot of sadness too. For the first two weeks, we started using anomia liquid and we put it around our nose. It was to cut the smell at Ground Zero. That’s what probably helped burn our lungs up…but you had to do something in order to work.”

In the beginning days of the response, Wright says “there would be crowds around the site, watching us work, waving banners and yelling “thank you!”. But over time, this public recognition of their work has faded.

In the years after the disaster, the U.S. government now recognizes over a 100 different illnesses including over 50 different types of cancer are related to exposure to 9/11. In 2010 Obama signed into law the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act which established the WTC Health Program and reopened the Victim Compensation Fund, which enables 9/11 responders and survivors to access no-cost specialized healthcare along with a process for filing a compensation claim with the Dept. of Justice for illnesses incurred from their response work. The WTC Health Program is a national program that monitors and treats 9/11 responders throughout the United States. Wright is a member of the WTC Health Program, and is anxious going in for his annual check-up appointment fearing the news that he has developed a terminal illness. “It’s scary when you go in for testing, and they check you for the big C-word (cancer), and everyone is dying from it… In my group (Red Cross unit) alone, there was 52 of us, and now there are 29 of us left. The most recent one was told he had cancer, and he couldn’t take it no more, and he took his life.” What is striking 16 years after the disaster, is the anxiety and fear that these responders must live with because of their selfless acts on that day and the months following. Responders fear becoming another statistic in the rising incidents of 9/11-realted cancer deaths. But Wright talks about his response absent of bitterness or resentment and his message today is one of hope. Wright shares his story eager to tell others that specialized healthcare is available to those who worked and volunteered at Ground Zero. Wright speaking on the limited public awareness on the help that is available to responders, “9/11 responders have been set aside which is sad. But I know there’s more people out there that were impacted and we need to educate the American people and let them know there is a program out there that if you responded, you need to call in and enroll.”

Through my own work at the New York Committee for Occupational and Health, I have meet many 9/11 responders over the years, and many of them exude this altruistic character, always thinking of others first and still years later trying to find ways to help. Today, 9/11 responders are reaching their comrades asking them to enroll in the WTC Health Program, knowing that early detection of these 9/11-related illnesses can save lives. As the impact of 9/11 continues to ripple across the country, this anniversary spread the word: help is available.

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.