NEW YORK — It’s a milestone no one wants to mark: Within the next year, the number of FDNY members who have died from a 9/11-related illnesses is expected to surpass the number of firefighters and Emergency Medical Technicians who died in the terror attack, FDNY and union officials said.
As of Friday, 306 active and retired FDNY members — including firefighters and EMS members — have died of 9/11-related illnesses.
It’s only a matter of time before the count of heroes felled by 9/11 illnesses will exceed the 343 firefighters and other FDNY workers who died on 9/11, say people who monitor the situation.
“It may be in the next six months,” said James McCarthy, president of the FDNY-Uniformed Fire Officers Association. “We have thousands of people who have been diagnosed with a 9/11 illness or cancer. Everyone has something, and that’s part of the problem.”
It was announced last week that retired FDNY Firefighter George Tripptree, EMS Captain Fay Baughman and EMS Lt. Gloria Gordon all died of a 9/11-related illness.
A week earlier, three firefighters, including retired FDNY Battalion Chief Joseph McKie, died from their exposure to the toxic soup that hung over Ground Zero for weeks of rescue and recovery operations.
“There’s been a significant number of deaths in the last couple of weeks,” McCarthy said. “We’ve been to eight World Trade Center funerals since the end of August.”
“All those years ago when we first started talking about World Trade Center illnesses, we said that between 10 and 20 years (after Sept. 11, 2001) we would see a spike in some of the cancers because it takes that much time to manifest,” added McCarthy, who attended the FDNY fire academy with McKie. “Here we are 21 years later and it’s happening.”
The FDNY estimates that 11,000 active and retired FDNY and EMS members have at least one certified World Trade Center-related illness, including cancers and respiratory and gastrointestinal issues.
“Twenty-one years ago, we lost 343 members of our FDNY family. That was not the end of September 11th’s impact on our Department,” Acting FDNY Commissioner Laura Kavanagh said. “The attacks continue to rob our department of members each and every year.”
Nearly 3,000 people were killed when terrorists flew passenger jets into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Since then, more than 4,000 first responders, volunteers and survivors have died from an illness or cancer linked to their time at Ground Zero, according to the World Trade Center Health Program, which currently faces a $3 billion deficit.
Advocates fear the budget gap could begin affecting services for 9/11 survivors late next year. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate majority leader, has vowed to secure the money needed to fully fund the program.
In the days following 9/11, FDNY members at Ground Zero worked endless hours on the pile, rarely leaving the area.
“They told us that the air was safe so we didn’t take breaks,” McCarthy said. “We ate lunch or had our coffee and water breaks right where we stood because it was too far to walk off and walk back. In retrospect that led to a lot of this exposure. We ingested it in many different ways.”
“Everybody feels the inevitability” that they will receive a World Trade Center illness diagnosis sooner or later, McCarthy said.
“You get a dark humor about it,” he added. “You hope for something easy or curable.”
Despite the uptick in World Trade Center illness deaths, McCarthy had some good news last week.
“No one is in hospice at least right now,” McCarthy said of his FDNY brothers and sisters. “When you hear that, it’s always, ‘Thank God.’”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.