Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

Bay Area Rescue Workers Sickened by Trade Center Air, KRXI-TV, September 8, 2003

SAN FRANCISCO -- Along with thousands of other rescue workers nationwide, Bay Area firefighter Frank Fraone answered the call in those dark days after the 9-11 terrorist attack. He went to Ground Zero in New York and worked long hours, searching through the debris of the World Trade Center.

"I was on at Ground Zero at least 12 to 18 hours a day, right on the site, on the steel," he said. "I think we did make a difference in what we did. We brought some people home to their families. We gave closure to some people."

Fraone is a member of California Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 3 based in Menlo Park. The unit is one of 28 specially trained teams in the United States always ready to deploy to help with searches and rescues. In all, more than 60 Bay Area Task Force members spent three weeks in New York City -- three quarters of them came back sick.

"My lung capacity results -- as of three months ago -- showed that I have the lungs of a 70-year-old," said the 41-year-old, who spent hours in thick smoke and dust, digging through the rubble laced with asbestos, benzene from the jet fuel and other chemicals.

Dr. Billy Trolan is the team doctor for Task Force 3 and like the rescue workers, he too spent countless hours in the dust of Ground Zero.

"The main focus was let's get the job done," he said. "So we went out there and worked hard... Everybody was amped up to do the best job we could...We were looking for survivors, so our own health care -- even though it is very important -- became secondary."

"We did a survey on who had the most exposure time," he continued. "Everybody with more then 180 hours of exposure time almost all had the same symptoms -- pneumonia, nose bleeds, sinusitis all kinds of irritants like that."

According doctors at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine, the other symptoms of what is now referred to as the "WTC" illness includes shortness of breath, rashes, burning in the nose and throat and digestive problems.

"Nobody would change their decision to go to the World Trade Center because that is who we are and what we do," said Harold Schapelhouman, the Task Force Division Chief. "I think what we would have like to have had is accurate information (on the air pollution at Ground Zero) to make the decisions on everybody's behalf regarding wellness and protection."

Schapelhouman says he feels betrayed by the federal government because he wasn't given that information.

A recently released report by the inspector general of the Environmental Protection Agency says White House officials instructed the EPA to mislead the public by saying the air near the World Trade Center was safe to breath when in fact it wasn't. The report said reliable information was not available at the time and the cautionary statements were deleted.

Schapelhouman said if they would have known the air quality was so dangerous, the team could have added extra filters to the respiratory masks they were using.

Now, rescue workers like Fraone are left to wonder -- What will be the price they will ultimately pay for their act of kindness?

"I have been in the fire service for 23 years now," he said. "My whole life is based around it and to know that your career is going to end short -- it's a concern."

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