Gassot flew back to France for Christmas that year, and colleagues there who had seen the huge dust clouds on TV urged him to see a doctor. During the examination, the doctor found that his lung capacity had dropped by 10 percent. Three years later he took a stress test. “The doctor asked me when I had had a heart attack,” Gassot says. He thought the doctor was mistaken. “I was always in good health before; I never had any problems, never saw a doctor. Suddenly, I had all kinds of problems, and they put a stent in my vein.”
Gassot did stories on the ground-zero workers who signed up for screening and monitoring at the Mount Sinai Medical Center’s World Trade Center programs, which are looking after more than 20,000 people who inhaled trade-center dust. But he never enrolled himself because he didn’t want to take a chance of someone finding out about his condition.
A few years ago, New York State changed its workers’ compensation system to help workers who had been injured at ground zero. Typically, a claim must be filed within two years of a work-related injury. But illnesses caused by exposure to contaminants, such as those found in the trade-center dust, may not develop until years later. The legislature enacted special provisions to give people who might not be sick now until 2010 to register for the right to file claims far into the future. Everyone who worked on the rescue and recovery operations at ground zero in 2001 and 2002 was covered by the extended deadline. But not journalists.
That bothered David Handschuh, a forty-nine-year-old New York Daily News photographer who was caught in the debris from the collapsing south tower. His right leg was shattered, and he developed post-traumatic stress that prevents him from shooting hard news even now. He went to the state workers’ compensation board and asked why journalists and photographers were not covered. “They said it was because the legislation does not specifically include members of the media,” Handschuh says.
Joseph Cavalcante, a spokesman for the workers’ compensation board, says that’s true, but that journalists can file the registration form (called a WTC-12) anyway. This way, he says, if the law changes they will be covered. Handschuh acknowledges that getting the legislature to revisit the law and include journalists is a long shot, but he is putting together a case that may end up helping. He has posted a four-page questionnaire on the Web site of the New York Press Photographers Association, asking for specifics about who worked at ground zero, and how doing so has affected them. He has amassed the most comprehensive set of data about photographers and journalists who were injured on 9/11.
So far, 190 media workers have responded. Fifty-seven percent reported having breathing problems after working at ground zero. Nearly 40 percent said they had developed asthma, and half of those who reported having breathing problems said they were still struggling to breathe today. One in three journalists said that the air at ground zero had caused a chronic cough (only 13 percent said they were active smokers and 58 percent said they had never smoked). Nearly 60 percent said they had developed acid reflux, or similar maladies, after 9/11, and most said they still have it. The journalists’ problems were not limited to physical ailments. Nearly one in five said they had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and one in four was suffering from depression.
For some, there was no distance at all between the biggest story of their careers and their own lives. On 9/11, Catherine Leuthold, freelance photographer, took the subway into Manhattan and got there in time to photograph both towers collapsing. At one point, she ducked into an abandoned ambulance, grabbed some gauze and wrapped it around her nose and mouth. “I remember thinking it was really bad to breathe this stuff in.”