Ken George, in his house in New York’s Long Island, takes 32 pills a day.
He was a 9/11 emergency worker (first responder) and as a result of that, he has lung and heart disease, and post-traumatic stress disorder. He says he rarely manages to sleep and when he does, he suffers recurrent nightmares.
On 11 September 2001, Ken, who worked for the New York Department of Transportation, responded for work: a work which would see him searching and digging out Ground Zero for the next nine months. His health situation caused him to retire in 2006. He is 47-years-old.
He said: “I’ve seen the fires. I’ve seen the dead bodies, the body parts. I helped pick them up and bring them to the morgue, the makeshift morgue. I’ve seen the buildings burning. I’ve seen the toxin air which I called the Gates of Hell. That’s what I called them.”
Like many other 9/11 responders, Ken developed lung and respiratory problems almost immediately. Others developed cancer. Doctors have confirmed his illnesses are a direct result of his work in Ground Zero.
Today, almost 1,000 9/11 responders have died and it is estimated that over 15,000 are ill. Ken says unlike families of 9/11 victims, there has been little financial compensation and argues that responders are paying an unfair price for 9/11.
“It was an act of war. They came over here and attacked us. We went down there. It was the right thing to do to help our fellow Americans out. Don’t you think they should help us out? Our own government? With something? We’re not asking for millions. We’re just asking for enough money to pay the medicine and to make sure our family is not out on the streets. Is that too much to ask for, when you spend how many millions on a war?”
Today at Ground Zero the twin towers are gone, along with the horrors that Kenny and other 9/11 responders witnessed 10 years ago. A memorial is set to open on the 10th anniversary of 11 September. Reflecting pools stand were the towers once were. The names of the victims are engraved on the sides.
They are victims of what most Americans saw as an act of war by Al-Qaeda. An act which has changed and shaped United States politics ever since and one which continues to cost the country and the world both in terms of human loss and financial burden.
Jeff Coombs was on the plane which crashed into the North Tower. The flight had originated from Boston where today, in their home in Massachusetts, his widow Christie shows the family portrait taken just one week before his death.
She said: “9/11 changed my life in every way imaginable. First and foremost it made me a widow and took away my kids’ father. And it changed our family, it changed the way we look at life everyday. We had to accept Jeff’s death, there was no way around that. We had to accept the publicness of it, because of the way he died. There was just no way around that. And we could either do it by staying in our house, living in the black hole of grief and just being angry the rest of our lives, or we could dig ourselves out of that black hole and we could find a way to turn something very dark and very negative into something positive.”
One of the those positive moves is the Massachusetts Military Heroes Fund which Christie co-founded with another 9/11 widow. The aim is to help military families who have lost loved ones in Afghanistan or Iraq or who are struggling financially either because of injuries, illnesses or lost income. Christie says in a strange way she felt responsible for soldiers who fought in the post-9/11 wars. She says their struggle is far from over.
“The War on Terror has been a rough 10 years. And nobody knows that more than the families who’ve lost their loved ones. More than 5,000 service members have died. But what I always tell people is whether or not you believe we should be there, you have to support the military and not just say you support them but find an active way to support them. I just look forward to the day when all of them are brought home.”
One soldier who will never be coming home is Seth Dvorin, who was killed in Iraq in 2004.
His mother, Sue Niedermen lives in New Jersey, not far from New York. She blames the government and army recruiters. She says soldiers are often ill- prepared or equipped to face wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. They also do not get help when they come home.
It is estimated that some five million American men and women have served in the military since 9/11.
And while she appreciates the help from 9/11 family members like Christie Coombs, Sue Niedermen wants recognition for her son and other fallen soldiers by her government.
She said: “They’re not even acknowledged. Or they’re acknowledged in an off-handed way. Basically the press is going to be focusing on 9/11 and the victims of 9/11 in the Twin Towers. Yes, 3,000 lives were lost. That’s true. That’s a tragedy. But the 9/11, you’ve got the Freedom Tower going up. What’s the cost factor? Anybody know what’s the cost of these memorials to the fallen? I resent it. I think most of us do who have lost children or have children fighting. You’re spending all this money again, which could be allocated back into this country to support the soldiers who are doing the fighting but yet you’re going to put up tons and tons of memorials to 9/11. Where are your tons and tons of memorials to the 9/11 soldiers?”
Ken George and John Devlin have become close friends since 9/11. They even call themselves brothers. Like Ken, John is a 9/11 first responder. Today he has stage four throat cancer which is inoperable.
Last December, the US Congress approved a bill worth over $4 billion (2.8 billion euros) to compensate some 9/11 responders but not those who have cancer. John says between chemotherapy and radiation treatments it cost $1 million (700,000 euros) just last year to keep him alive.
John Devlin showed us some of the medical papers from his treatment. He said: “This is from my cancer doctor. This is from the doctor that runs the monitoring programme that is government funded for us, the World Trade Center Monitoring Programme. This is my ear, nose and throat doctor all saying that in their opinion, my cancer was a result of working at Ground Zero. So right there, if my state government recognises that I got cancer from Ground Zero, why isn’t my federal government doing it? I have the answer. The answer is money.”
He continued: “We went down there as volunteers. We didn’t have to go down there. But it wasn’t getting done unless people like me, and Ken George went down there as patriots. I went down there, nobody told me to. I called my union and said, ‘I’m going. I’ll be there’. We went down there to help all those people out. We need to be at least recognised. You need to recognise the people who actually went down there and did it that day.”
Recognition, compensation and remembrance seems a small price to pay for those who will continue to bear the cost of 11 September long after the visual scars have gone.