Not long after leaving his doctor's office recently, 46-year-old Harold Schapelhouman, chief of the Menlo Park, Calif., Fire Protection District and national recovery and rescue unit, said over his cell phone, "Now I've got asthmatic bronchitis."
For Schapelhouman and many of the 67 members of California Task Force 3 who followed him to the World Trade Center, the months post-Sept. 11, 2001, have been a long and arduous road to physical and emotional recovery--not to mention financial recompense.
Schapelhouman and his group--professional rescuers, doctors, bulldozing specialists, firefighters, police and communications experts, among others--played two crucial roles at ground zero.
The first assignment, even now listening to Schapelhouman matter-of-factly recount it, offers a chilling inside look at what could have been further disasters related to the ground zero tragedy.
Just nine days after Sept. 11, Schapelhouman's group arrived at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in Midtown Manhattan awaiting their first mission. What they were asked to do stunned them. They were asked to develop and staff a Rapid Response Task Force Concept for the city.
"That term had never been used before, nor was it standard practice," recalls Schapelhouman. "What it ended up being was that, within 24 hours, we were asked to provide and develop the capability for all of New York in case secondary attacks were to occur. And I can tell you just the first meeting at the Javits Center down there literally made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Because they were very fearful--there were representatives of the mayor's office there--of secondary attacks."
Many of the city's physical resources for rapid response had been destroyed or lost. "So," says Schapelhouman, "the city's physical ability to respond to a second or a third event was almost nonexistent."
In the face of this, within 24 hours of their arrival on Sept. 20, Schapelhouman and his men commandeered a beer truck to haul equipment and a prison vehicle to transport members of the team and built the infrastructure necessary to carry out a counterresponse to another attack.
"Within 24 hours, we technically ended up being the only backup New York City had for any other event," Schapelhouman says proudly.
California Task Force 3's next assignment was a dangerous one from a day-in-and-day-out health standpoint--rescue and recovery work on "the Pile" in 12-hour, nightside shifts.
"Literally it was like the end of the earth because, here you were, surrounded by complete devastation," he recalls. "If it wasn't the smoke or the fires, then it was soot or the lights. There was no heavy equipment being used where we were, so a lot of what we did was hand jacking work."
With regard to his task force's own health, they did make one significant error. "We set up across the street from the World Trade Center and that forward-staging area was in the plume itself, meaning the particular matter and the debris and so forth, the smoke even, kind of wafted over that area. As soon as our guys came clear of the actual site, they would take off their mask." This was allowed by the group's rule, but left them in a highly saturated area of dangerous particular matter and other debris.
Schapelhouman himself was in special danger because, as the leader of the group, he often had to remove his face mask to communicate more effectively. "As a manager, as much as I felt I probably needed to wear a mask, because I had to give physical orders to people to their face and I had to talk on the phone and the radio, I often did not wear a mask," he says.
California Task Force 3's deployment time at the Trade Center was for about 13 days, with each team member spending at least 56 hours, or four operational periods, on duty.
For Schapelhouman, days often blended into other days--when he wasn't directing his team on their night shift, he spent days coordinating activities with dayside managers?again, often not being able to wear a mask.
CONNECTING THE DOTS
Once the task force returned to California, it was only by happenstance they collectively began to realize the extent of probable Sept. 11-induced maladies they had suffered.
The occasion for this realization was the gathering of some 200 family members and friends of the group at the Napa estate of one of the members of the Swanson frozen-food fortune.
"One of our guys came home early," Schapelhouman recounts, "and when word got around on his plane of what he'd done, somebody gave up their first-class seat for him. He ended up next to a woman who happened to be Mrs. Swanson, and she asked what she could do to help out. Our guy said, 'Well, you know, every time we come back from one of these events, we try and throw a barbecue or picnic for our families and kids."
So that's what Mrs. Swanson did at her estate--complete with live entertainment, the swimming pool open for the kids and Robert Mondavi walking around pouring wine. But there was a dark side to the event.
"As everybody socialized," Schapelhouman remembers, "one of the problems that came up was, 'Where is Joe?' And 'Where is Tom?' The answer would be, 'Well, so-and-so is sick. He's only 24-years-old, but he's got pneumonia.'
"When some of these conversations started to come up and you began to connect the dots?this was the first time since we came back that we were all together--it was the first time that we realized that a lot of our people were struggling with health-related issues."
So Schapelhouman conducted a survey after his group had been home for about two months of whether people had been sick since coming back. About 70 percent of his team members said they had been sick or were still sick--from nosebleeds to upper respiratory infections to what is now called the "World Trade Center cough," to two guys initially, and later eight, diagnosed with pneumonia.
Adds Schapelhouman of his own condition: "When I came back, I was sick too. You think to yourself maybe because it's the adrenaline wearing off. I think a lot of us equated it to that. But then what started to happen was a persistent cough. And the question for me became, what is that? Because for me, even after the Oklahoma City bombing work, I was probably sick on and off for six months because of all the concrete dust I ingested. You were always in it. Whereas at the World Trade Center, there was the smoke, there wasn't as much dust, but there was a lot of particular matter that would get stirred up all night long. I thought, 'Well, this has happened before.' But then it went on longer, and, of course we had done the survey, which showed some pervasive effects on our team."
How much longer did it go on? "Well, it still goes on to some degree today," he says. "I have a question in my mind over the last several years if I have a sinus or an upper respiratory infection and if it's tied to the World Trade Center.
"And then my wife, who is a light sleeper, has told me that, after I came back from the World Trade Center, that my breathing is much louder at nighttime. She says, 'You're very noisy.'
"So I wonder," he adds. "It's not 100 percent conclusive for me. But at the same time I know something is going on. As time goes along it becomes more defined that I have some sort of respiratory problem.
"My biggest thing," Schapelhouman says, "was after the cough kind of subsided after a year or so was that I would go into a bronchial spasm every time I laughed. I like to laugh, and I don't want that to happen. When you sound like an 80-year-old man with emphysema, you become concerned what this is."
Then there were the psychological effects Schapelhouman and his men suffered. "It takes a while to find your way on the path to understand your emotions and how you deal with something like the World Trade Center. A lot of our guys were in denial and still are. Sometimes I find myself in denial. There's a dark side to recovery that, if people could see it through our eyes, maybe they would see us differently--not so much the heroes we're often portrayed as.
"So besides the physical aspects when guys come back, you're dealing with the mental aspects of how to put that into perspective," adds Schapelhouman, "and how are you going to live with that the rest of your life, because that's really what it comes down to."
Schapelhouman and his group sustained another kind of loss as a result of the World Trade Center assignment--financial loss.
When the group was preparing to leave for New York, based on reports in the "Wall Street Journal" and other media about the severity of the particular matter, they bought $50,000 of extra respiratory equipment.
Later, after protracted battles with the Federal Emergency Management Agency over recouping the money, they weren't reimbursed for $20,000 for certain kinds of respiratory equipment. ("And respiratory protection was the key out there," Schapelhouman says.)
Ashley Small, a representative of FEMA, says the agency does not allow for the reimbursement of equipment bought without prior agency approval.
"I was told by one of my supervisors at the time that I needed to let that go so we could move on," recalls Schapelhouman. "I'm not so sure he was right. To this day, I harbor some resentment that, here we were at the World Trade Center, and somebody didn't understand it enough to realize that because we didn't have a listing for a quantity cap and a cost cap for this respiratory protection, that the feds didn't want to reimburse my agency.
"Which I thought was wrong," adds Schapelhouman. "How could you watch TV, how could you hear about what was going on, and not understand that anybody who tried to upgrade respiratory protection, which is what we were trying to do for our people, was doing the right thing? That should have been a no-brainer."
Another payment barrier Schapelhouman and his group ran into was with federal workers' comp. The group was owed a collective $150,000 or so. "In the end everybody was compensated, but it was a struggle," says Schapelhouman. "It was the first time we had dealt with the federal workers' compensation system. We just dealt with them again over Katrina, and it was a lot better. They put a specific claims person on our case. I think where the feds made a mistake at the World Trade Center was that they na´vely didn't assign a claims adjuster to working specifically with us. Now that we have that, it makes it a lot easier when you have a person you can talk to."
Another agency Schapelhouman and his group became involved with was Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City. Hearing of the sophisticated monitoring system Mt. Sinai put in place in 2003, Schapelhouman contacted the medical center to see what kind of help it could provide his group.
The result was very positive. For several years now at a clinic in nearby Redwood City, Calif., Mt. Sinai has conducted screenings of his people every year. "They give us some basic information about health screening, and, if you follow their statistics, some of the trends they're starting to see."
And FEMA conducts annual physicals at that site as well.
But is there any official notification by any national organization doing follow-up on WTC-related medical matters?
"No," says Schapelhouman. "And I think that's wrong."
Though Schapelhouman says he and others in his group have "question marks" related to physical and emotional problems that may well be related to their experience at the World Trade Center, would they go there again?
In one of his many surveys of group activity, Schapelhouman says the conclusion was a consensus--"Every single one of them said they would do it again."
"Bad as it was at the Trade Center, you see this overwhelming majority of people in this country who want to help, care about what's happening, show it, and have a tremendous appreciation for those of us who go out to do the dirty work."
STEVE YAHN lives in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.
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September 1, 2007
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