Silverman could have gotten help from Mount Sinai’s monitoring program, but after he signed up for it, he moved to Atlantic City and never went. At least 113 people who describe themselves as journalists, photographers, or camera operators are among the people enrolled in Mount Sinai’s various 9/11 programs. Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, who oversees the programs, says the journalists are “showing pretty much the same problems at roughly the same proportions as anyone else who was down there.” Those problems include asthma, sinusitis, interstitial lung diseases, acid reflux, and post-traumatic stress.
One of the important findings from Mount Sinai and other studies is that many people who were exposed to the dust in the first few days developed the same complex set of related illnesses. My friend Keith Meyers is one of them. We worked together for more than two decades at The New York Times. He is an avid boater who has covered many stories in and around New York’s harbor. After 9/11, he used his contacts to talk his way aboard a Coast Guard helicopter that flew over ground zero. He was in the air, with his camera out the open door, as the chopper hovered over the burning debris pile in the days immediately after the collapse. The smoke and gasses from the raging fires mixed with the dust and ash from the collapsed towers in ways that scientists believe made breathing that air at that time particularly hazardous. Meyers wore no protective gear, but he came back with prize-winning photographs.
By 2006, Meyers was barely able to work. He had come down with the whole range of trade-center symptoms—the persistent dry cough, recurring asthma, gastrointestinal reflux disease, and emotional distress. Although he had photographed many grisly events in his career, Meyers was unnerved by the images from 9/11 and the lingering physical impact the dust had on him. He was put on restricted duty, but in time, as his physical problems mounted, even that proved too stressful.
His editors and immediate newsroom supervisors were sympathetic and did what they could to help. But when he put in for workers’ comp, he found himself fighting a system set up to handle broken arms, not breathing problems that take years to develop. As I was writing story after story about the environmental and health impact of ground zero, I watched Meyers get sicker and sicker. Because of the articles I was writing, he opened up to me about the hoops he had to jump through as he dealt with corporate medical officers and the Times Company’s insurer, who suggested that his asthma was a preexisting condition even though Meyers had regularly passed the Federal Aviation Administration’s rigorous Class 1 Flight Physical, which allowed him to fly with and photograph the crew of the space shuttle Challenger while they were in training.
Officials at the Times declined to discuss individual personnel issues. But William Schmidt, a deputy managing editor who worked to get help for Meyers, says that dealing with his post-9/11 issues has raised important new considerations for the newsroom. “Whenever we send people into harm’s way, we stand behind them and we always will,” Schmidt says. “But the kinds of problems and risks that were presented at the wtc site were something new to us and were not as easily understood or assessed.”
After years of emotionally draining struggle, Meyers was put on indefinite medical leave. He said he is satisfied with the way the Times ultimately resolved his case, and he finally won his workers’ compensation case. But winning is a poor way of describing what’s happened to him since 9/11. He can no longer shoot photographs or go out on his beloved boat. He declined several requests to discuss his problems on the record, saying it was too painful. But in a brief interview in March 2008 with the Photo District News, Meyers, who is now sixty, revealed the sad truth about his situation. “Not working is harder than being sick,” he said.