As New Yorkers pause and commemorate this afternoon, thousands of fellow citizens are at home in uncertainty. The attack of September 11, 2001 still kills in the city. People who used to work at the disaster site are now, twenty years later, afflicted with diseases that can be traced back to that day. “For a large group of victims, 9/11 is only now really starting.”
Elisa DiSimone of Staten Island was diagnosed with cancer for the second time last month. First it was in the esophagus, a form that only occurs in people who have been in contact with very specific substances. “That’s how doctors have been able to determine that this disease is related to 9/11.” It happened again last July, this time in the respiratory tract. Again there is a connection with the disaster site.
“These people have come into contact with kerosene, asbestos, and all kinds of materials that the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center (WTC) were made of,” said attorney Phil Alvarez, who assists patients like Elisa. After the attack, the southern tip of Manhattan was one big cloud of dust and grit and debris. A deadly mix, it turns out, for all those New Yorkers who lived, worked or came to Ground Zero as aid workers.
Although she has low energy and difficulty breathing, Elisa DiSimone is eager to tell her story. “This is important because there are so many people like me.” Her Staten Island neighborhood is home to many police and firefighters. “You hear about a new case here very regularly. My own cousins worked as firefighters in the rubble, I pray every day they don’t get sick.”
DiSimone ran a tourist office in the lobby of a hotel in the WTC in 2001. After the attack, she went there to get the accounts out from under the rubble. “It was a war zone, fires were still raging everywhere. I was wearing army chests and sturdy clothing. But unfortunately no one thought of protecting your mouth and face as well. I clearly inhaled dangerous substances there.”
“There are 68 cancers on the list that are common among those involved in 9/11,” says attorney Alvarez. “And besides that, it’s about diseases in the respiratory and digestive systems.” At his office in Long Island, at least twenty lawyers are calling and typing. “They all deal exclusively with 9/11 cases,” Alvarez says, “we don’t do anything else here.”
The U.S. government passed a law in 2019 that provides compensation for people who become ill as a result of 9/11. “Anyone who can prove their presence at the crash site and have one of the diseases on the list can automatically claim the fund,” Alvarez said. But that is a complicated process, hence the intervention of a lawyer.
“Today, twenty years later, I get sick daily on the phone,” says the lawyer, “new clients.” And the peak is yet to come, according to Alvarez. “We have been warned by experts: a disease like lung cancer reveals itself twenty years after someone was exposed to substances. And here we are now, so we brace ourselves for the coming year.”