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Staking Their Claims

February 5, 2002
Staking Their Claims
Hundreds reserve right to sue city over Sept. 11
Graham Rayman, Staff Writer

Three weeks ago, Firefighter Fernando Camacho developed paralysis on the right side of his face.

On Sept. 11, Camacho of Ladder 22 had responded to the base of the South Tower just before the collapse, and worked in the smoke and dust of Ground Zero for about 10 days.

Doctors told him that his condition was called Bell’s palsy, caused by an infection that attacked a facial nerve. He had difficulty hearing, speaking and blinking. This was after two months with a nagging sinus infection and numb tongue. He opted to file a notice of claim with the city.

“The doctors don’t really know what the cause is,” said Camacho, 32, of the Bronx. “I was hoping it wasn’t caused by whatever chemicals were down there, but I decided to find out my rights. Now or in the future, if I suffer from anything, I’m protected.”

As of yesterday, 1,300 notices of claim have been filed with the city, totaling $7.18 billion stemming from the World Trade Center disaster, city figures show. A notice of claim is a way of preserving the right to sue the city. It must be filed with the city comptroller’s office within 90 days of an incident.

In recent weeks, the city has been enforcing the 90-day rule. Camacho’s lawyer, Michael Barasch, who represents nearly 1,000 firefighters, police and sanitation workers, said he recently had a dozen claims rejected for missing the deadline.

Attorney Anthony Gentile, who represents 240 firefighters, said he has had 17 claims rejected. The lawyers must now go to court to win a waiver of the rule on a case-by-case basis.

Like Camacho’s case, the lion’s share of the claims is related to respiratory complaints from firefighters and other emergency workers involved in the recovery in the days and weeks after Sept. 11. Other claims involve damaged buildings – the Bankers Trust Company, or the owners of 120 Greenwich St., who claim $20 million in damages. Other notices have been filed by relatives of people killed Sept 11.

The respiratory claims center around the charge that the city failed to provide emergency workers with proper respiratory gear, allegedly in violation of city and federal workplace safety laws. “There were dangerous levels of PCBs, dioxins, mercury, lead, fiberglass, heated by the fire for 90 days,” Barasch said. “The experts have never seen this combination of chemicals. It’s like a witch’s brew.”

Barasch said one firefighter, a marathon runner, now says he can’t carry his young daughter up the stairs. Another was told by doctors that his lungs resembled those of a coal miner. Many other have complained of nagging bronchitis and cold symptoms.

“You are going to be seeing in the next five years so many other guys getting sick, going out on medical leave,” Barasch added.

Gentile said the state Department of Labor recommended the use of respirators on Sept. 13, but the Fire Department was slow in issuing the equipment to firefighters at the site. “It was a lack of following the protocol,” he said.

“They gave out dust masks, which are great when you’re working in your garage but they will not protect you from asbestos, fiberglass and all these other toxins,” Barash said.

In the past, the Fire Department has acknowledged a rash of respiratory complaints, but suggested that there was no clear link to Ground Zero and noted that cases of medical leave were only slightly higher than normal. In a Dec. 18 letter to firefighters, Fire Department doctor David Prezant noted that 25 percent of firefighters tested positive for airway irritation in October. About two-thirds of those firefighters showed the same result in November, as did another 13 percent who had shown normal results in October. More tests are scheduled for March.

“The fact that 13 percent developed airway irritation only on repeat testing raises the possibility that this irritation may occur even months after the exposure,” Prezant said.

The relatives of those killed are the least likely to file lawsuits, unless direct evidence emerges of negligence by either the city, the airlines or the Port Authority. Also, any family who partakes in the federal compensation fund cannot sue.