It took fewer than 20 minutes for American life to irrevocably change. On the morning of September 11, 2001, 19 Al Qaeda terrorists hijacked four planes, with two of them hurtling into New York City’s Twin Towers at speeds of over 466 miles per hour. Hundreds died instantly. In total, 2,753 people in New York would perish then and there as a result of the attacks. Fires raged in the area 99 days after the fact.
As the world witnessed the largest terrorist attack on U.S. soil on live TV, an equally superlative event took place: the largest coordinated emergency service response in U.S. history.
On that day, over 100 EMS units and private ambulances raced to the site. The NYPD and Port Authority sent out more than 2,000 police officers to secure the area. The FDNY dispatched at least 214 units — constituting 112 engines, 58 ladder trucks, five rescue companies, seven squad companies, four marine units and dozens of chiefs. Other units dispatched themselves without command.
Many of these emergency workers would not return. In total, 343 firefighters and paramedics; 23 NYPD officers; and 37 Port Authority officers would die as a result.
Fifteen years have now elapsed since that fateful day, with the consequences of 9/11 making themselves known through multiple wars on terrorism, increased governmental surveillance, and threats to basic civil liberties, among others. For many 9/11 first responders who survived, the date’s significance lives on somewhere deeper: in their very bodies.
At the end of August 2016, researchers at Stony Brook University published a study that found what they called “disturbingly high” levels of cognitive impairment (CI) among 9/11 first responders. This impairment, researchers said, is considered a leading cause of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
In conducting the study, researchers screened over 800 World Trade Center responders, many of them in their early 50s, for signs of cognitive impairment and dementia. Of those screened, researchers found that 12.8 percent showed signs of cognitive impairment, with a further 1.2 percent demonstrating signs of possible dementia.
In a release, researchers called these numbers “staggering,” saying that the study affirmed the fact that the medical trauma of 9/11 has not, and will not, go away with time — and that the event has had more of an impact on first responders than initially thought.
“This study indicates that the effects of the exposure to the World Trade Center attacks on the responders may be more pervasive and insidious than originally thought,” Dr. Benjamin J. Luft, Director of the Stony Brook WTC Wellness Program and co-author of the paper, said in a release. “The results only support the wisdom of the passage of the Zadroga legislation, which provides continued monitoring and treatment of diseases caused by these exposures.”
Stony Brook’s findings build on a wealth of medical conditions that 9/11 first responders have developed since the towers fell. Indeed, doctors who work with the World Trade Center Health Program, which the federal government founded following the disaster, have identified and linked nearly 70 different kinds of cancer to Ground Zero.
“The diseases stemming from the World Trade Center attacks include almost all lung diseases, almost all cancers — such as issues of the upper airways, gastroesophageal acid reflux disease, post-traumatic stress, anxiety, panic and adjustment disorders,” Dr. David Prezant, co-director for the Fire Department of the City of New York’s World Trade Center Medical Monitoring Program, told Newsweek.
However, to some, it’s uncertainty that may prove to be the biggest threat to first responders’ health.
As NYPD cop Richard Dixon told Newsweek, “You don’t think that the cough you get today will be the cancer you get tomorrow.” Dixon worked in rescue and recovery for two months following 9/11. Since then, Dixon says he has had sleep apnea, sinusitis, and gastroesophageal reflex disease, which can develop into cancer.
Still, Dixon counts himself as lucky. “We lost 23 NYPD officers in the attacks,” he told Newsweek. “But many more have died since then of these September 11-related illnesses. We need to find out why, or that list of names on the 9/11 memorial is going to just keep growing.”
Physicians working with 9/11 first responders have also reported the incidence of what they call the “World Trade Center cough,” which they say likely stems from the debris they had inhaled while at Ground Zero.
“The symptoms these patients have are terrifying,” Dr. Michael Crane, director of the World Trade Center Health Program’s lead clinical center at Mount Sinai, told Newsweek. “They will suddenly wake up and find they cannot breathe.”
According to data obtained by Newsweek, in June of 2016 seven percent of individuals enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Program — 5,441 people out of the program’s 75,000 — have been diagnosed with at least one kind of 9/11-related cancer. Many have more than one kind of cancer, as the total number of cancers stands at 6,378 as of June.
Given the carcinogens and asbestos that response and recovery workers inhaled at the site, Crane does not find these figures, however devastating, wholly surprising. “We will never know the composition of that cloud, because the wind carried it away, but people were breathing and eating it,” Crane told Newsweek. “What we do know is that it had all kinds of god-awful things in it. Burning jet fuel. Plastics, metal, fiberglass, asbestos. It was thick, terrible stuff. A witch’s brew.”