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Testimony regarding oversight of the survivors' state of health of 9/11 responders and the surrounding community


Testimony before the New York City Council on Civil Service and Labor jointly with Committee on Health

Good morning, Chairs Miller and Levine and to the members of the Committee on Civil Service and Labor and the Committee on Health. My name is Ellie Engler, and I am the executive assistant to the president and the director of staff for the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). On behalf of our union’s 185,000 members, I want to thank you for this opportunity to offer testimony on the state of the health of those 9/11, survivors who worked, attended schools and lived in the surrounding community.

First, we would like to thank the New York City Council for its advocacy on behalf of our public schools, our members and the children who deserve a high-quality education in a safe and secure environment. Your oversight is crucial and helps ensure that our children and their families receive the services and supports they need to succeed and thrive.

As important, we acknowledge the New York City Council for standing up for all survivors of 9/11, especially the first responders, workers involved in the recovery and clean up, and the students, families and individuals living in the neighborhoods surrounding Ground Zero.

The UFT prioritizes safety and health

The UFT has a long track record prioritizing safe and healthy environments in the schools where our members serve, and our city’s children learn. In fact, the union, as an early proponent of these measures more than 20 years ago, brought industrial hygiene and occupational health and safety expertise and services into its portfolio — they hired me. My initial role involved developing and implementing schoolwide safety and health programs, with an emphasis on the laboratory and vocational shops inspection and remediation protocols for school renovations.

This expertise took on a whole new meaning in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on our city. Ten New York City district public schools resided in the World Trade Center zone and many of these neighborhoods, historically known for commercial properties, increasingly housed families.

The neighborhoods in the zone include: Chinatown, Battery Park City, the Financial District and parts of Tribeca.

Protecting our children in harm’s way

For any who were in Lower Manhattan that day, it is an experience seared in each of our memories. When the Towers fell that September morning, the first reaction for the thousands of UFT-covered employees working below Canal Street was to insure that their students, patients and people in their care were safe.

Teachers led children through dust plumes and sheltered them under cars and in subway stations as they sought to guide them to safety. Paraprofessionals put their special needs charges on their backs and carried them down stairwells and out into the streets to escape the falling debris. Teachers shepherded students down to the tip of Manhattan and put them on boats to escape the area. Others shielded their students’ eyes so young children wouldn’t see what we later knew were bodies falling out windows of the Towers. Some spent the night in schools keeping children calm.

No child was injured. All made it out safely.

What happened next was, in some ways, even more difficult. Recovery and cleanup efforts covering what was a major financial, government and educational hub was no small undertaking. We relocated staff and students and supported them through the immediate trauma.

Our journey in the aftermath

Several days after 9/11, together with a team of Department of Education (DOE) industrial hygienists, two members of my team and I inspected seven schools — the buildings most directly in the path of the fallout — in the World Trade Center zone. We observed and monitored city, state and federal cleanup efforts.

Reopening schools in the zone didn’t happen overnight. There were rolling openings as each school became ready through February 2002; Stuyvesant High School was the first to open on October 9, 2001. Our union members are professional educators, clinicians, therapists and caretakers of every stripe. We take care of children and we take care of each other. We provided ongoing mental health counseling support for staff and remained in close contact.

Our team and the DOE occupational physician developed reporting protocols, continued meeting with building staff and with the other hygienists, and monitored the ongoing cleanup through June 2002.

The staggering impact on lives and health

The sheer numbers of those who were directly affected by what happened on that day and who continued living and working in the area is staggering. According to the Victim Compensation Fund, the total exposed population is 425,000, which includes the 90,000 first responders and those working in the private and public trades; the net of which is a universe of approximately 335,000 survivors. Many of these people did not begin to experience illness and develop varying forms of cancer until years later. Across the country the cancer statistics are mounting, including 8,000 responders and 9,000 survivors.

The Victim Compensation Fund has received 35,477 eligibility claims and has made more than 22,800 determinations for injured and ill responders, and/or survivors, or their families totaling $3.9 billion of the $7.3 billion allotted by Congress. Unless it is extended, the current deadline for awarding these funds currently is December 18, 2020. But, only 88,000 are enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Program. Clearly, there is tremendous unmet need and the numbers could rise exponentially over time. The UFT supports extending the federal deadline for these funds.

UFT advocacy for at-risk members

It took years before any of us made a connection and understood the breadth of the health crisis that would befall many. Only as first responders started getting sick, with unusual cancers and multiple respiratory problems, did the real impact become public. The message had still not hit home.

In August 2016, I was honored with a first responder award in the name of the late NYPD officer, James Zadroga, by the AFL-CIO. First responder — I never thought of myself, or any of the members of our team as first responders. We were part of cleanup efforts and along with thousands of teachers, city workers, students and residents, walked to and from school breathing air that federal officials only years later acknowledged was not safe. As the years passed, the UFT began hearing from staff who worked in lower Manhattan schools who were now getting sick; suffering from respiratory disease and unusual cancers. Critically, and unexpectedly, students — young men and women in their early 20s — began receiving cancer diagnoses typically affecting people twice their age.

Three of us in the UFT Health and Safety department were on the ground in the aftermath and two of us have been diagnosed with cancer.

In 2017 we began an awareness campaign to let our active and retired members, who we believed to be at risk for these 9/11-related illnesses, know their rights and enroll in the WTC Health Program. We successfully tracked down and contacted more than 1,000 members who taught in the schools near Ground Zero between Sept. 12, 2001, and May 30, 2002, offering assistance to navigate the complex legal and health landscape for compensation. I am enrolled in the program.

This is not easy work. These are people who didn’t necessarily see themselves as getting sick from 9/11. These were not people who worked “on the pile.” Some of these members have difficulty facing these tough issues about their health. Often they’re already sick.

In our most recent forum, on November 29, we reached out to more than 800 members. One of the stories is just unforgettable. An active member who has worked and lived in Chinatown reported her own current cancer, but her husband and cousin had previously died of cancer. She hadn’t really come to the forum truly making that connection; she came to the forum just to see what it was about. To date, we’ve held five seminars. We’ve touched every member who worked in one of those schools at least three times through our outreach mailing.

Maria Sanabria, was a paraprofessional at Leadership and Public Service High School on Trinity Place, fled the building with students through smoke, ash and debris after the attack. Two of her former colleagues have died of cancer. And after years of breathing and throat problems, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2017, had surgery and remains in treatment.

But hundreds of our members who were downtown that day still work in the school system, and we’ve made a special effort to contact them. What became painfully obvious was that the student outreach wasn’t happening.

Former students deserve 9/11 services

So many children attended the schools in the zone and were in those buildings in 2001 and 2002. Some of the schools closed. Most have not closed. These former students, now young adults, deserve to know about their eligibility for 9/11 health services and possible compensation for their care. We are not aware of any systematic effort by the DOE to notify former students of the potential health risks. In particular, in our work in Chinatown working with the Chinese Planning Council, it became obvious that the student outreach just wasn’t happening.

Shoshana Dornhelm was a student at Stuyvesant High School on September 11, 2001, and for the months and three years that followed. In 2016, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and had to undergo six rounds of chemotherapy. She is healthy and surviving now. She didn’t at first make a connection between her illness and 9/11 until several people in her circle (family friends, former classmates) encouraged her to apply to the WTC Health Fund and seek out other sources that could be available. She has become a vocal spokesperson for students and community members to know their health rights.

While former students were minor children in the direct aftermath of the of 9/11 who required parental permission for medical follow-up, that’s no longer the case. Our work with our members shows we can reach survivors. This undone work needs to happen and happen soon.

What the City Council can do

Chairs Miller and Levine, we seek your partnership in bringing awareness to the former students about the World Trade Center health programs and the Victim Compensation Fund, as the clock is ticking. You could use your oversight authority to request that the DOE do whatever is at its disposal to contact these former students.

The department is in the best position to know how monumental its task is. At minimum, it could send hard mail and electronic mail blasts. It should use a variety of media, from local print and broadcast to social media platforms. If older records require an electronic transfer, there are several certified entities capable of doing this sensitive work; in at least one instance, the department already has secured funding to do it. We would gladly work with the DOE to connect it to these resources.

We thank you for your consideration. Think of the powerful difference we can make in so many lives, moving this, the next step, forward.