Firefighters accepted all risks at ground zero

Richard Ruelas
The Arizona Republic

Sept. 13, 2004 12:00 AM

The crew of Phoenix firefighters stored its equipment about 10 blocks from the World Trade Center site. Even there, Kevin Kalkbrenner said, there were pieces of paper flying around and a swirl of debris. As they were ferried in the back of a truck to begin their shift at ground zero, a week after the towers fell, the layer of concrete dust made the area look as if it had been hit by a blizzard. "You know you're going to be breathing some of that stuff in," Kalkbrenner said.

The firefighters anticipated the dust and asbestos. Crews brought along two-stage respirators that fit over their nose and mouth to block out particulates. And commanders mandated they be worn. Still, one-quarter of the Phoenix firefighters who went to New York after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, returned with diminished lung capacity.

Other consequences might not be known for 20 or 30 years. The masks they wore did nothing to block out the cancer-causing toxic materials in the air.

"What we were told is wear these masks," Kalkbrenner said. "It's safe for what we need to do. They told you this definitely isn't going to protect you from smoke."

At the time, the air wasn't as much of a concern as the situation on the ground, or below it. Crews worked to recover bodies trapped under the five-story pile of rubble created when the terrorist-hijacked airliners hit the twin towers.

And, the Environmental Protection Agency had already declared the air safe to breathe. That declaration was made Sept. 18, with no caveats, despite the fact that results of tests for toxic substances had not yet become available.

Kalkbrenner's job was to locate pockets in the collapsed debris of the World Trade Center, spots where bodies may be. When he found one, he would tunnel through the steel beams to see how far down it led. "You're crawling on your belly and your face is down," he said. Goggles blocked his vision; the respirator over his face was cumbersome. "You really felt like you wanted to take it off," he said.

He didn't. His bosses had drilled it into Phoenix firefighters' heads that they needed to keep their protective gear on. Commanders set up what they called a "lobby" as the crew entered the site. They were inspected to make sure their gear was in place, and told not to remove it past that point.

A lot of New York firefighters and construction workers had no protection, and at times, Kalkbrenner felt like the only kid wearing a bicycle helmet.

"I'm down there talking like this to a (New York) battalion chief," Kalkbrenner said, cupping his hand to his mouth to distort his voice. "And he says, 'I can't understand you with that stupid mask on your face.' "

The diligence with the gear could be one reason Phoenix has not seen lingering health problems. Those who had diminished lung capacity returned to normal within a year, said Dr. Jim Fleming of the Phoenix Fire Department's health center. And there have been no cases of World Trade Center cough, the malady that has plagued the New York Fire Department. That is a lingering cough that results in at least four weeks of missed duty. Some 330 firefighters had been diagnosed with it, according to a New York department study.

A good number of New York firefighters didn't wear protection. In the first few days of the recovery effort, no one would have expected them to. The job of trying to save any trapped people took precedence. But Jack Ginty, a New York firefighter who is on the executive board of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, said workers would have taken more precautions had they known the dangers. "People were asking, 'Is this safe?' . . . and we had the EPA saying, 'Oh, yeah, it's fine," he said. "They flat-out lied to us."

A report by the inspector general of the EPA found that the agency received pressure from the White House's Council on Environmental Quality to downplay dangers of the air around the Trade Center. The report said other factors came into play, including a desire to reopen Wall Street.

Had firefighters known the dangers in the air, Ginty said, crews may have operated differently. Maybe rotating in six-hour shifts rather than 12-hour shifts. Maybe working days or weeks at a time, rather than a month straight.

Such changes in work hours would have lessened Phoenix firefighters' exposure to the alphabet soup of cancer-causing chemicals in the air.

"Our folks went up a week after the event and were there for a week only, but they were living in this stuff," said Fleming, who is continuing to monitor the Phoenix firefighters for any lingering effects. It's still unclear exactly what chemicals were in the air. "We also don't know what the dosage was, and the levels of exposure were also variable." As for the chances of cancer among the Phoenix firefighters who worked the pile, Fleming said, "your guess is as good as mine."

Kalkbrenner said firefighters accepted the risk, even if they were not fully aware of it. "We knew where we were going could affect us for the rest of our lives, mentally, physically.

"The 63 of us that got on that plane knew that was part of the deal."

Reach Ruelas at (602) 444-8473 or