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An Ill Wind – In Their Lungs

November 15, 2001
An Ill Wind – in Their Lungs
Dennis Duggan

Firefighter Palmer Doyle was planning for the future yesterday.

The “World Trade Center cough” could be heard in firehouses across the city, and Doyle was in a law office a few blocks from Ground Zero talking over a lawsuit on behalf of those with the ailment.

“This isn’t about money,” Doyle said. “It’s about our future, and the future of our families.”

Doyle got the cough working non-stop for the first several days after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

“We weren’t given proper equipment for about two weeks,” said Doyle, who, like many other firefights, wore a paper mask during the early rescue efforts.

“You know what those masks stop?” firefighter Joseph Sardo said in the kitchen of Engine 10, Ladder 10, which the city now wants to close. “Golf balls.”

Some indication of how many firefighters feel about city officials could be seen on a blackboard at that firehouse. The words “The Three Stooges,” referring to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Fire Commissioner Tom Van Essen and Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, were written on it.

“What about the cough?” I asked Capt. Gene Kelty. He was standing on the sidewalk at the corner of Liberty and Greenwich streets talking to State Sen. Martin Connor, the minority leader of the senate whose district includes Battery Park.

Connor has formed a Ground Zero Task Force, which is working to save the firehouse whose members have been dispersed.

“Many of my constituents want to keep the firehouse here,” Connor said. He was about the width of Queens Boulevard from the tattered remains of the once proud Twin Towers.

“Everyone knows about the cough,” Kelty said. “Two of my men are on medical leave. One of them has bronchitis, and the other pneumonia.”

Ask Lt. Ed Greene, a veteran Bay Ridge firefighter, about the cough as soon as he recovers from it.

He is with Ladder 118 in Brooklyn Heights, which lost eight men that awful day.

“At first, I thought I had the flu, because one of my kids was sick. Then I went to the department’s medical unit, where my chest was X-rayed. I took breathing tests, too,” he said. “I’ve been off for two weeks and I am still feeling sluggish.”

Doyle spent yesterday in the offices of Godosky & Gentile, which smelled of smoke from Ground Zero.

Anthony Gentile said he was advising all firefighters to have pulmonary tests taken as a first step for “legal purposes.”

“We have only 90 days in which to bring suits on behalf of the firefighters,’ he said, cautioning that the suit would not be a class action. He said he had informed officers of the Uniformed Firefighters Association of plans to take legal action.

Doyle said, “Someone had to do this, and I have taken it upon myself.”

“The union is too busy with other matters now – the funerals, the rescue efforts,” he said.

Another high-ranking firefighter, who asked not to be named said he also had taken time off. “It’s a bad cough,” he said, “constant wheezing, bringing up fluids. It was definitely something I got working the rescue effort at the center.”

Doyle, who works out of Engine 254 in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, and who lives in Rockaway Beach, six blocks from where American Airlines Flight 587 crashed, became the first firefighter to run for public office, bidding unsuccessfully to become a city councilman this year.

Doyle said he knows the legal action, could cause him problems. But he says he’s willing to take the chance for himself and his fellow firefighters, many of whom offered support at a union meeting last week.

Yesterday, almost all the workers at Ground Zero wore double respirator masks, which are far more effective at keeping smaller, possibly toxic, particles at bay.

“Look, I pray to God there is no long-term problem,” said Doyle, a firefighter for 14 years. “But I want to be sure that if there is, our families will have some protection.”

A few days ago, the Fire Department said it would conduct long-term research into the effects of the World Trade Center cough and would also try to encourage firefighters who smoke to quit.

Dr. David J. Prezant, deputy medical officer for the Fire Department, told a meeting of the American College of Chest Physicians in Philadelphia earlier this month that he could not comment on possible future health problems connected with the ongoing rescue effort.

“We don’t know about the long term,” he said. “We do know what we can change today.”

That’s why Doyle says he was at Godosky & Gentile. He figures there’s only one thing he can change today – the future of his wife and two children.