Monday, September 5, 2011

The Red Star of Death

Hunkered down deep within the archives of the FDNY are hundreds of files marked with a blurry red inked star known by some veterans long since passed as the "Red Star of Death".  These files contain a special group of firemen, 699 in all, that responded to the once infamous 'New York Telephone Company' fire in the old Gas House District of East Manhattan.  I say once, because 699 pales in comparison to the 8,927 folders about to be stamped with same death star containing the men and women of the FDNY that were involved in firefighting operations and sadly body recovery at the murder site of the Twin Towers in lower Manhanttan.
Stuyvesant Square Today

On February 27th, 1975, New York City firemen responded to a report of a structure fire at the New York Telephone Company high-rise building on the corner of Second Ave. and 14th Street located in what is now known as Stuyvesant Square named after Peter Stuyvesant whose farm sat at this location in the Seventeenth century.  The first alarm companies, there were four other alarms to follow, responded just after midnight to a blaze that would continue to spew out toxic clouds of hydrochloric acid, benzene, and 4,000 other known cancer causing compounds that make up polyvinyl chloride or PVC.  Hours later after the fire was extinguished it was discovered that more than 100 tons of piled up PVC sheathing had burned throughout the night and most of the next morning in sealed vaults more than three stories underneath the huge telephone switching station.  At one point the fire became so intense that firemen standing on the street above were literally knocked off their feet after one of the vaults exploded from an accumulation of flammable hydrocarbon gas given off by the burning PVC.

Today, some 36 years later, the effects of this deadly blaze are still being felt among New York's bravest.  Dan Noonan, a firefighter on Ladder 3 at the time, was one of the first to arrive on scene "Virtually every firemen who responded to the phone fire's first two alarms has cancer" and Noonan has linked 40 confirmed cases so far to those first companies on scene, including his own case of leukemia.  But how in the world do you single out this one particular fire when firefighters are exposed thousands of times to toxic smoke and chemicals over the course of their careers?  The task is made even more difficult when you realize that exposure record keeping in 1975 was virtually non-existent.  Look at this case for instance, the only tracking system back in the mid-seventies even with the largest fire department in the country amounted to nothing more than a red telephone company stamp on a folder.

Chief Von Essen
The Chief Medical Officer of the FDNY in 2004, Dr. Kerry Kelly asked "How do you monitor people when they are retired, particularly when cancers caused by burning PVC can take up to 20 years on average to appear?"  By the mid-nineties, rumors of cancer clusters had begun to surface among the ranks that had fought the telephone company fire.  Thomas Von Essen, former Fire Commissioner of New York and the author of the best selling book "Brotherhood" ordered an immediate inquiry into the suspected high cancer rates.

So, in 1997, the Chief Medical Officer conducted a survey to determine the extent of the clusters.  Although much of the data in 1997 was not based on all 699 due to various reasons, the most important being that firefighters in those days tended to "suck it up" rather than report being sick or injured, however, 239 firefighters did feel sick enough after the fire to report it.  Of those 239, 18 were already dead, seven of them from confirmed cases of cancer some twenty-two years later.  The report also determined that the average age at the time of death or the cancer diagnoses was just 50 years old; Men like Joseph Pfundstein, 45, dead of leukemia, Thomas Pitarresi, 62, dead of colon cancer, or a man I personally met, Dan Noonan, who received the devastating news at just 52 years old that he had leukemia.  "There is no doubt in my mind that PVC in the Telephone Company fire caused a cancer cluster" said Deborah Wallace, an expert in environmental health who fears that the numbers are most likely to grow in the years to come.

Based on other hazardous materials incidents like the 1969 Everglades fertilizer plant fire in Florida and what firefighters already knew by seeing their brothers die of various malaises over the years, this came as no surprise.  A new study published in the "Lancet", a British medical journal, indicates that those who worked at "ground zero" during emergency operations and clean-up are much more likely to have cancer than those who didn't.  The current Chief Medical Officer for the FDNY, Dr. David Prezant, indicated that "the findings point to a higher rate of cancer among those studied from the 911 site; however, the results are far from conclusive.  This is not an epidemic".  Well, if the New York Telephone Company fire is any indication, then Prezent and others in Washington, D.C. better start defining the parameters for a pandemic rather than an epidemic crisis, because unless they change the way current legislation has been written, thousands of brave men and women are going to be left to fend for themselves.

The first review after the 911 attacks has just recently been released by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health which has yet to confirm a link between exposure at ground zero and cancer.  However, the numbers are beginning to come in and they are alarming.  Of the 8,927 that were classified as being exposed, 263 have cancer which is 19% higher than that of the group of 10,000 firefighters studied that were not exposed.  In fact, the study has already seen an increase in certain kinds of cancer like non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, thyroid and prostate cancer.  But as we found in the telephone company fire, many of these men and women whom we know were exposed to cancer causing substances like jet fuel and asbestos may not be diagnosed for 20 or more years after the initial exposure. 
So, where does this leave our first responders and civilians that responded to the World Trade Center on 911 to assist in the rescue and recovery?  Cancer is not an illness that is covered by the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act that provides for treatment, compensation, and continuous health monitoring of those exposed at ground zero.  This is particularly true for the multitudes of construction workers, ambulance personnel, and volunteers that worked hours upon hours at the 911 site.  Firefighters and police officers are somewhat better off because of a cancer presumptive law passed in the early 1990's which gives them certain pension benefits.  However, in many states including New York, if the cancer is not diagnosed until after retirement, the firefighter receives nothing in medical treatment or compensation beyond what he is entitled to otherwise.  It is clear to me that the 9/11 Compensation Act needs to be reviewed for the benefit of the brave men and women that responded at a time when they were needed most.  Stand behind them by writing or calling your congress person and ask that the James Zadroga 9/11 Act be amended to include cancer victims.  Please don't stand-by and let our first responders and good citizens become another forgotten "Red Star". 

1 comment:

  1. Now retired and looking back at the Telephone Company fire at second ave. and 13th st. in 1975, I have to say it is one of my high lights experiences of my career. At least 120,000 subscribers were out of service in the area. To the company credit, they use all their resources and manpower available to restore service as soon as possible. Something estimated to take at least a year, it was done in less than a month. I never saw so many people working like ants in one place. Because of the lack of lockers or closets, we had to carry our tools home. The New York press was present along with company big shots when finally a call was made to Mayor Abe Beame from inside the builduing announcing the restoration of telephone service 28 days after the disaster.