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.”
Within days, she started having trouble breathing. A runner, she couldn’t even walk briskly for more than a few blocks. Early in 2002, when she was in Hebron to cover the second Intifada, she and a fellow photographer had to run from what sounded like gunfire. She struggled to breathe, and collapsed. Vertigo kept her bedridden for two and a half days. Back in New York months later, she rushed to cover an explosion in Chelsea but ran out of breath so quickly that she knew something had to be wrong. That was followed by another Middle East trip, and the funeral of a Palestinian boy who had been shot by Israeli soldiers. “I was sobbing, and I was taking pictures at the same time, and realizing that I didn’t know if I could continue,” Leuthold says.
Her breathing problems got worse, the vertigo continued, and Leuthold realized that she had been hurt on 9/11 in ways that she was still figuring out. She felt she needed a drastic change, so in 2006 she left New York for a two-hundred-year-old farmhouse on the Maine coast. She is a landscaper there now, designing gardens and planting bulbs. She teaches photography at a local Montessori school and she still shoots, though nothing resembling hard news.