Ground Zero ill thin FDNY ranks

New York Daily News
December 21, 2001
Ground Zero ill thin FDNY ranks
Helen Peterson & Richard Weir, Daily News Staff Writers

As many as 300 firefighters who performed rescue and recovery duty at Ground Zero are suffering severe respiratory problems and may have to retire, fire union officials said yesterday.

Tom Manley, health and safety officer for the Uniformed Firefighters Association, said that of the roughly 500 firefighters who are on medical leave because of rescue-related injuries, as many as 300 have lung ailments.

Some of those may clear up with treatment, but many of those firefighters also have developed asthma, a potentially career-ending condition, Manley said.

"There's a strong possibility that many of them may never be able to return to full duty," he said.

"You can't be fighting fires with asthma," Manley added, "Smoke irritates asthma severely. And when you climb stairs, you are shot by the time you get up there. You're going to be out of wind."

FDNY spokesman Frank Gribbon agreed that "it's critical that you have good lungs to do this job." However, he added, it is too early to tell how many firefighters who worked at the Trade Center site may need to go out on disability.

About 500 firefighters retire each year, some after completing service and others on disability, he said.

Altogether, the department said, 750 firefighters are on medical leave, about 8% of its force of 11,100.

"That's slightly above normal," Gribbon said, adding that usually 6.6% are out sick at any given time.

Meanwhile, more than 1,000 firefighters who worked at Ground Zero in the aftermath of Sept. 11 have filed notices to protect their right to sue the city for negligence.

"The theory is that the firefighters who worked at Ground Zero, particularly in the two weeks following the tragedy, were not given any or adequate respiratory protection other than perhaps little painters' masks," said lawyer Michael Block, who represents 80 firefighters.

He and other lawyers said the firefighters suffer from a series of ailments ranging from persistent coughs to asthma and other respiratory problems.

They've filed notices of claim against the city, the lawyers said, to protect firefighters who may not be eligible to receive benefits from the federal Victims Compensation Fund.

Block said he also wants to preserve his client's right to sue in case they develop serious injuries.

Another 750 firefighters are represented by the law firm of Barasch & McGarry, and about 250 are represented by the firm of Godosky & Gentile.

People who intend to sue the city are required to file formal notice within 90 days of an incident, although that time limit is expected to be waived for incidents stemming from Sept. 11 attacks.

"They were working 12 hours on, 12 hours off. The only thing they were given were these dust masks," lawyer Michael Barasch said. He said the masks don't protect against some elements the firefighters may have been exposed to, including benzene, PCBs, lead, chromium, copper, asbestos, sulfur dioxide and fiberglass.