9/11 haunts heroes

Physical, mental trauma surfacing

By MICHELE McPHEE and PATRICE O'SHAUGHNESSY
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITERS


Firefighters and cops who survived the collapse of the twin towers on 9/11 are still suffering from posttraumatic stress and physical scars.

The death, destruction and inability to find every victim in the World Trade Center attack continues to inflict physical and emotional scars on the police and fire personnel who responded that day or spent a year in the aftermath of the disaster.
Twenty months later, severe mental health cases are increasing among cops who were at the twin towers' collapse, or worked at Ground Zero or the morgue or the Fresh Kills landfill.

"We're getting cases that if they hadn't reached us, they would have taken their own lives, taken someone else's, hurt somebody else or become part of the disciplinary system," said William Genet, director of the independent support group, Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance. "There is no question in my mind that certain clients we have were heading for real problems."

Firefighters are still seeking counseling in record numbers. After a decline in January, there were 200 new cases on one day in February.

And the physical toll on the FDNY is high: 200 firefighters were forced to retire because of lung ailments from Ground Zero, and possibly hundreds more will have to leave the job in the next year for the same reason, department officials said.

William Quick, the holder of two medals and 12 citations for bravery in his 22-year career, had planned to be a firefighter forever.

Quick, 47, rushed to the twin towers Sept. 11, 2001, helping wounded people out of a nearby subway station, then took cover as the buildings cascaded down. "I couldn't breathe, I hid in my coat, I couldn't see my hand in front of my face," he said that day.

He spent months in the rubble and dust searching for victims. Still, he loved the job.

But in January, Quick - a veteran of rescue and specialty squads - learned he had lost 30% of his lung capacity working at Ground Zero.

"The doctor looked at me and said that I couldn't go back with those lungs. He told me I had to retire," Quick said last week. "I was devastated. My heart was in my throat. For a month, I wouldn't go to the firehouse because I had to hang my head low.

"I kept thinking, 'I can't be a fireman anymore? I can't be in the house, I can't be on the truck,'" Quick said. "Sometimes, I just drive around in my car and cry. Being a firefighter is my life, and I never wanted it to end."

Reopening old wounds

A veteran police officer who spent months at Ground Zero has been counseled recently by Genet's group because he is still depressed. On his way to the group's office on lower Broadway two weeks ago, he decided to walk past the disaster site.

"When he got to our office, this fully grown man completely broke down, his body went numb," Genet said. "We had to render him medical aid. It was scary. It was my first experience with the physical showing."

Genet said the number of cops seeking counseling has leveled off, but the severity of the cases has increased; the stress-related problems are more critical.

Last year, his group averaged 20 critical cases at any given time. This year, the group has 35 ongoing critical-status cases. "And we believe it's climbing," he said.

Genet's views echo the feelings of several ranking NYPD members who were interviewed.

"It's still affecting many of us now, in little ways, sure," said one veteran detective who was at the towers' destruction. "But almost every cop you talk to knows a cop who is affected to the point where they are debilitated, guys who were heroes that day and are totally messed up, in a mental hospital or drinking."

The critical-case cops Genet works with are on desk duty or sick leave. "They can't work, and for some of them, it's too late, too severe. They may never go back to work," he said.

At the FDNY, counselors are dealing with some firefighters torn up on two fronts.

The department gave comprehensive medical examinations, including pulmonary tests, to 10,000 members. About 2,500 showed diminished lung capacity caused by exposure to the air at Ground Zero.

"A significant number were unable to return to work and had to retire," Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said. "Some are young firefighters who had their careers cut short by this tragedy."

Firefighter Ed Sullivan, 40, of Engine 211 in Brooklyn, is on light duty after failing the lung test. He was at the command center at the towers and is slated to retire.

"It was all I ever wanted to do my entire life," he said. "Lots of guys are suffering. Almost everyone I know has respiratory problems. The physical stuff you get used to, the emotional stuff doesn't leave. I still have nightmares, I still break down every time I see a picture of one of my buddies who died. I personally knew 40 firefighters who didn't walk away from there."

Delayed fallout

Malachy Corrigan, director of the FDNY's counseling unit, said he anticipated the delayed fallout.

"Because the symptoms were repressed for 18 months, it could be more difficult to connect it," Corrigan said. "But we see people individually, to find their story. Clearly, in the clients' vocabulary, they're saying it's because of 9/11."

Corrigan said his pre-9/11 caseload was about 50 clients a month. It peaked last fall with some 500 in a month, then declined to 80 per month. By the end of March it was 120 a month, Corrigan said.

"We're talking about brand-new people," he said.

From Sept. 11, 2001, through the end of last March, nearly 6,000 people received counseling from his unit. Most - 85% - were FDNY members, the rest were relatives or families of the 343 fallen firefighters.

Genet said that before the World Trade Center disaster, 10 to 15 cops would be in counseling each month. His group saw 2,000 cops in 90 days after 9/11 and now counsels 20 to 30 a month.

"They're not sleeping, they're irritable, battling with spouses, drinking more; they're emotionless, or totally overreacting. Some show paranoia with loud planes. They can't go near a police facility or anything to do with the towers," he said.

"They say to us, 'Hell, that was better than a year ago.'"

He said it's natural that people who were at Ground Zero or the morgue or dealing with victims' families for prolonged periods would take longer to react than a cop who responded to the attack and quickly resumed regular duties.

"Our timetable varies ... those at the morgue and the landfill were not finished with their work until a year later," Genet said. "They have it stuffed so far down, that when it does come out, it's festered so long that it could jump right into a severe case requiring hospitalization, or showing itself in more serious domestic situations or breakdowns."

Separate support group

Genet's group counsels cops who are not in the NYPD disciplinary system. Those who are arrested or suspended from duty are required to use the department's counseling program. Figures on how many cops have received counseling from the NYPD's program were not available.

Sixty-nine cops have been suspended this year for domestic violence incidents, drunken driving and other infractions, such as failing to follow orders. In the same period last year, 48 cops were suspended. The department could not say whether any suspensions were linked to World Trade Center duty.

Genet said posttraumatic stress often manifests itself in disciplinary problems but added that patterns emerge only over extended periods.

For example, more than two years after the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, counselors saw severe cases of posttraumatic stress.

Corrigan said firefighters have begun to deal with their stress in groups.

"Those trapped in a particular location when the buildings fell, they shared the commonality that they were going to die. The 200 members who worked in the morgue shared something totally different from others in the department, about 30 of them are in the group. We also have collapse groups - anyone who was in the buildings, or buried under a car."

He said another group is composed of firefighters forced to retire because of lung problems.

Genet's group also has put those who shared experiences together - cops who lost co-workers or who couldn't get into the towers to rescue victims.

"The most severe cases we have are the ones who probably did the most over there," he said.

Scoppetta is lobbying for the continuation of federal funding for counseling. It is expected to run out at the end of the year.

"This funding has proven critical because it helps our work force address important individual and family needs."

But for some 9/11 rescuers, things will never be the same.

"Going to the firehouses now, the people I know, you can see they have changed," said Sullivan. "It's taken a part out of all of us."

Originally published on May 25, 2003


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