Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

Sickly saviors
By Michele McPhee, NY Daily News, May 26, 2004

Cancer shows up long after Sept. 11

In the agonizing hours after the towers collapsed on Sept. 11, Brooklyn Firefighter Pete Strahl was on his belly, crawling in a tunnel of debris under 7 World Trade Center to reach an injured civilian.

The victim, with broken bones and a split-open head, was carried to safety by Strahl and his fellow Engine 236 firefighters. Their act of bravery was one of several retold in a Daily News front-page story "The Great Rescue of Sept. 11."

Strahl is now battling a deadly throat cancer. His lung tests are also showing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, dubbed the "World Trade Center cough" by medical experts.

"They took out my voice box," said Strahl, a 21-year FDNY veteran who retired in August 2002, just months after doctors found a malignant neoplasm of the larynx in his throat.

"My doctor feels it was definitely caused by 9/11. To me, I don't know. I'm a firefighter, not a doctor. But they can't tell me it definitely isn't because of what was in the air down there," he said.

Strahl's oncologist, Louis Rosner, said he believes the 47-year-old father of three developed cancer because of his work on Sept. 11 and in the days after.

"It is my professional opinion that the toxic exposure to known carcinogens at the World Trade Center site was a significant contributing factor to Mr. Strahl's diagnosis," Rosner wrote in a letter to the Sept. 11th Victim Compensation Fund.

Strahl originally applied for money to settle a knee injury, but he rejected the award when he learned he had cancer. He made a new application and testified two weeks ago before a judge representing the fund.

The difficulty for Strahl and other first responders at the World Trade Center is that they must prove their illnesses are job-related. So far, there is no medical evidence linking Ground Zero to cancer.

"We have no interest in denying people what they have coming to them,"said NYPD Supervising Chief Surgeon Eli Kleinman, who heads the department's medical board. "But everything has to be done on a scientific basis."

Detectives Bill Ryan and Ed Wallace were denied tax-free pensions equal to three-quarters of their salaries. They worked side-by-side at Ground Zero. Ryan was assigned to the arson and explosion squad and had been one of the lead investigators in the 1993 Trade Center bombing. Wallace was assigned to the crime scene unit.

Both were in elite units that required them to have yearly lung X-rays and breathing tests. In the summer of 2001, both said they had healthy, clear X-rays.

It is a much different picture today. Both suffer shortness of breath, chronic coughs and exhaustion all symptoms of sarcoidosis, a permanent lung condition they believe they got while working on "the pile."

"All these politicians say we are never going to forget the heroes," said Ryan, 41, who retired in January after 20 years. "Well, they already did."

Too late for fund aid

The deadline to apply for financial help from the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund passed on Dec. 22, 2003.

Advocates and lawyers fear that some serious, even critical, health problems related to 9/11 will not become apparent until months or years later, too late to apply to the fund.

Attorney Michael Barasch, who represents Pete Strahl and a slew of other emergency workers, said he has 73 clients who missed the deadline.

He is trying to persuade Special Master Kenneth Feinberg to open those claims.

"Their injuries were not diagnosed until after the deadline. But cancer doesn't have a calendar. Their lungs weren't informed of the deadline to apply," Barasch said. "The fund was very fair to people who had orthopedic injuries but very unfair to people who had latent diseases who were not diagnosed prior to the deadline."



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