January 27, 2020

Saga of First Responders’ Never-Ending Battle Told in ‘9/12’

Only rarely does a single date on the calendar mark a tipping point in history. Dec. 7, 1941, is one example, and Nov. 22, 1963, is another. The most recent example, of course, is 9/11, a date that is fully as infamous as Pearl Harbor day or the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

What happened amid the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center on the day after 9/11 — a catastrophe so immense that it could be seen from space — is the starting point of “9/12: The Epic Battle of the Ground Zero Responders” by William H. Groner and Tom Teicholz (Potomac Books/University of Nebraska Press). It’s a work about a long course of investigation and litigation, to be sure, but it is also a tale told at human scale. At precisely the moment when thousands were running away from the flames and smoke, hundreds of heroes were running toward the ruins of the Twin Towers.

“As the Towers collapsed and dust mushroomed, police, fire-fighters and emergency medical services volunteers were arriving from all over the city,” write Groner and Teicholz. “They would continue to show up throughout the day from the greater metropolitan area, and eventually from all over the country and even Canada. They were impelled to be there to do what they could in what everyone understood to be a national emergency.”

Groner was a participant in the litigation that was one of the most enduring aftereffects of the attack on the World Trade Center. Teicholz, a familiar name to readers of the Jewish Journal, is one of our longtime contributors and a widely published journalist and author. Together, they tell the memorable tales of heroism and, at the same time, they reveal the disgraceful way that the first responders were treated when they began to fall ill from their exposure to “the Godzilla-like cloud [that] engulfed all in its path.”

A year after 9/11, for example, a New York Police Department detective named Candice Baker was suffering from a persistent cough that she treated with cough medicine and hot tea. What she didn’t know — but soon found out — was that she was at risk of hundreds of agonizing, disabling and even fatal complications, ranging from asthma to cancer. The same fate befell many of the other first responders whom we meet in “9/12” — police officers, paramedics and firefighters, construction and utility workers, and civilians who were inspired to join the rescuers.

The dust that boiled up from the ruins of the World Trade Center was, in fact, a witches’ brew of deadly pollutants, made up of “the jetliners, their tanks of benzene jet fuel, and the entire contents of the buildings: the outside structure, the windows, the interior walls, the ceilings, the insulation, each painted surface, every piece of treated carpet, all the air-conditioning and heating equipment, and all of the office equipment, including monitors, computers and copy machines,” 1 million tons of debris that was “fused by the extreme heat into … toxic combinations never seen before.” So devastating was the damage that only 291 bodies (out of 2,753 fatalities) would ever be recovered.

The authors point out that little or nothing was done to protect most of the first responders aside from paper masks of the kind that housepainters use or respirators that quickly ran out of cartridges. A police officer named Thomas Ryan recalls telling his partner: “What’s wrong with this picture? We’re out here, we’re standing in the street wearing paper masks, and there’s a Humvee going by and the Army guys are sitting with their chemical suits on.”

Even more shocking is the response these heroes received from the doctors who treated them. “The illnesses were real. The patients were sick,” the authors write. “But even those doctors who believed the conditions resulted from some sort of toxic exposure at Ground Zero could not say so definitively.” Employers and government agencies relied on medical indecision to deny benefits. “For the responders this failure to validate the cause of their illnesses and deny them their disability benefits was disheartening; some considered it a shocking and appalling insult to their selfless service.”

“9/12” tells two stories in parallel. One story — the ordeal of the first responders who put their lives at risk at Ground Zero — is driven by its inherent drama. The other story — their struggle for justice in a bundle of lawsuits — is necessarily more complex, but it is no less stirring.

At the heart of “9/12” is an account of the long and heartbreaking struggle of the first responders to make their case in the courthouse and in the halls of government. Here we meet another set of heroes — the attorneys who represented the first responders in the bundle of cases that came to be called the World Trade Center Disaster Site Litigation. For anyone for who holds personal injury and public interest attorneys in low esteem, “9/12” demonstrates why they deserve to be seen as champions of justice for the 10,000-plus first responders who suffered a total of 36,843 medical conditions.

By contrast, the managers of the billion-dollar “Captive Fund,” which was intended to assist the injured first responders, managed to spend $275 million during one five-year period on defense lawyers and administrative costs, according to media coverage of the case. Still, the attorneys representing the first responders respected the work of defense attorneys, “even when they violently disagreed with them,” because, as Groner and Teicholz affirm, they all believed that the American legal system demanded the strongest possible advocates.

Groner was one of the leading lawyers in the “mass tort” case, but he is always described in the third person in the book itself. At moments, it’s a bit unsettling to realize that he is writing about himself. Still, the fact that Groner was a firsthand participant in the events that are described in detail by the co-authors adds to the intimacy and urgency of the narrative.

“In all his years of practice, Groner had never had a case like this, where the press and the scientific community were doing his research for him,” the authors write. “Each day Groner would check his Google alerts, and then read the relevant newspaper articles, and if there was an alert regarding the CDC, he’d go to their website to see what had been uncovered or discovered.” 

“9/12” tells two stories in parallel. One story — the ordeal of the first responders who put their lives at risk at Ground Zero — is driven by its inherent drama. The other story — their struggle for justice in a bundle of lawsuits that were called the World Trade Center Disaster Site Litigation — is necessarily more complex, but it is no less stirring. Groner and Teicholz write with both clarity and compassion about both the human struggle and the legal struggle. 

The reward for the reader, no less than for the first responders, is the opportunity to see justice done at long last and against long odds.

Jonathan Kirsch, attorney and author, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.