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12 years later
DC 37 outreach gets 9/11 workers into free health program

 
 

ABOVE: Barclay Street, in lower Manhattan where DC 37 headquarters sits, became Ground Zero after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Volunteers and city workers who were part of the massive rescue, recovery, and cleanup can get help through the new WTC health monitoring program.

By DIANE S. WILLIAMS

Twelve years ago on that infamous Sept. 11, Associate Urban Park Ranger Nancy Mercado, watched a terrorist-controlled passenger jet crash into Tower One of the World Trade Center. She and a team of Urban Park Rangers had been working in Battery Park City, training 26 new Parks Dept. recruits.

Mercado and her co-workers helped evacuate thousands from lower Manhattan that fateful day. For two weeks, she was stationed near Ground Zero to escort residents safely in and out of the disaster zone to get their medication and IDs and rescue stranded pets from high-rise apartments.

One block north of the disaster site, Sewage Treatment Workers Local 1320 President James Tucciarelli worked with Blue Collar Director Jose Sierra and others to salvage vital records, equipment and computer hard drives from District Council 37 headquarters. They shuttled then-Administrator Lee Saunders and other union leaders into and out of Ground Zero to assess the damage the building had incurred.

 
 

DC 37 member Migdalia Acevedo is enrolled in the WTC program and is featured in a video promoting the no-cost health-care services. She sleeps with a nebulizer nightly and takes several medications to cope with asthma, back pain, sinus and digestive ills after exposure to toxins while working near Ground Zero.

Migdalia Acevedo was a disaster response trainer with the Centers for Disease Control, working near Ground Zero. "My son was trapped at his elementary school in the Bronx, I couldn't get to him," she said.

Acevedo also took test samples from network news anchors and crews who were exposed to deadly anthrax that same month. When Mayor Rudolph Giuliani ordered public employees back to work soon after the terrorist attacks - even though the area had no electricity or water - Acevedo's supervisor had her and co-workers climb 21 flights up a dark, ash-filled staircase to meet in a contaminated conference room at 225 Broadway.

We had a police escort. There was no power. I walked 10 blocks loaded down with two laptops and heavy bags of files and then climbed those stairs," Acevedo said. The experience changed her life.

WTC Health Monitoring

Acevedo damaged discs in her spine and now suffers with chronic asthma and severe back pain. She has had as many as six asthma attacks a day and now sleeps with a nebulizer nightly and takes a half-dozen medications for her respiratory problems, aches and pains.

 
DC 37 member Migdalia Acevedo.


Declining health in the decade following 9/11 kept her out of work sporadically and in hospital emergency rooms frequently. Huge medical bills forced the brave first responder into bankruptcy. At a Local 375 general membership meeting, Acevedo talked to DC 37 Associate Director Henry Garrido, who suggested she register for the World Trade Center health-monitoring program through the union.

None of these DC 37 members, who spent countless hours at Ground Zero helping and protecting others, meet the traditional description of WTC first responders - a distinction then limited to Police and Firefighters and EMS workers.

They and many more members and volunteers were on the frontlines at Ground Zero every day for months to rescue all who could be saved, bring out the dead who could be found, and clear the streets and tunnels, lofts, apartments, offices and skyscrapers of the ashen remains of the Twin Towers.

 
 

Nancy Mercado, an Associate Urban Park Ranger in Local 983, gets checkups through the WTC.

With passage of the James Zadroga Health and Compensation Act of 2010, nonuniformed responders and cleanup workers like Acevedo, Mercado and Tucciarelli as well as the countless volunteers and all who worked, lived or attended school or day care in the disaster area can register for the World Trade Center Health Program and receive medical care, medicine and health monitoring at no cost.

The program helps responders and survivors with post-traumatic stress disorder, asthma, respiratory problems, certain cancers, difficulty sleeping and other physical and mental health symptoms as a result of their experience.

Help for sick volunteers

"A year later I started coughing up blood and I knew something was not right," said Tucciarelli. He contacted Lee Clarke from the DC 37 Safety and Health Dept. She urged him to enroll in the then-existing health-monitoring program at Mt. Sinai.

"I watched as vehicles were hosed down every time they left Ground Zero. Why? Because the authorities knew something was in the air," he said. On a flight to Washington, the union leader was seated near Christine Todd Whitman, then head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, who had declared that the air at Ground Zero was safe.

"I let her know otherwise," he said. "I talked to her the entire flight, whether she wanted to hear me or not."

Since 2003, Clarke tirelessly led DC 37's advocacy campaign for the passage of the Zadroga Act, the legislation that established the current WTC Health Program, which operates several clinics in New York and a nationwide provider network.

DC 37 received a federally funded grant to register symptomatic survivors for the World Trade Center Health Program.

With help from DC 37 Outreach Specialist Darrah Sipe, Tucciarelli enrolled in the WTC health-monitoring program and now sees doctors near his Staten Island home. "I think back on that day," he said, "and sometimes you need to talk about it or cry it out with someone."

Mercado remembers how overwhelmingly helpless she felt when she lost track of two co-workers as she watched people plunge from the burning buildings that tragic morning. She, too, has the well-known dry World Trade Center cough, sinusitis, indigestion and nightmares. With help from Sipe and DC 37, Mercado registered for the WTC health-monitoring program to get the medical attention she needs.

 
 

Local 1320 President Jim Tucciarelli at work fixing city sewers, registered for the WTC health monitoring through DC 37 Outreach Specialist Darrah Sipe and gets medical care at a Mt. Sinai facility near his Staten Island home.
Two years after exposure at Ground Zero he began
coughing up blood.

Support for survivors

"People may be ill and not know it," said Mercado. "I am glad the union is promoting this, because not only Parks Enforcement Patrol members but a lot of city workers in DC 37 may be sick and not know it and they may not attribute it to 9/11."

"The program is a blessing and a relief; it gives me access to care and treatment," said Acevedo, a Dept. of Health Analyst and Local 375 member. Darrah Sipe helped transfer her medical records from Bellevue Hospital to Mt. Sinai and navigate the state Workers' Compensation system for Acevedo's extended sick leave.

Like many New Yorkers and public employees, Acevedo helped others get through the 9/11 disaster, the anthrax scares, a massive East Coast blackout, an earthquake and Hurricanes Irene, in 2011, and Sandy, in 2012. Despite the tragedies she has faced, she remains an upbeat and vibrant union activist. She said, "I have job security thanks to my union, and I have the moral support I need to get through things like this."

For more information on the WTC Health Program call 888-982-4748 or visit www.dc37.net/about/OSHA/wtchp.html.

 

— Public Employee Press, September 2013




 
 
 
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