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.
Bruce Shapiro, the executive director of the Dart Center, called 9/11 “a wake-up call for a lot of news organizations.” But with economic gloom hanging over the news industry now, adding the costs of trauma training isn’t a priority.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the last four years interviewing survivors of 9/11, many sick and most full of fear. They told me how the worst thing of all has been dealing with the unending doubt. They feel betrayed whenever insurers or the compensation system or their own bosses question how dust could make anyone sick. Science, medicine, and the courts are searching for certainty before making a definitive link between the dust and disease. But I’ve learned that absolute certainty can be an elusive goal, and that it has different meanings in the laboratory, in the courtroom, and perhaps in the unspoken ethos of the newsroom.
New York State’s decision to allow uniformed responders to register for future claims can be seen as a tacit acknowledgement of the bleak future that possibly awaits those who inhaled the dust. Excluding journalists and photographers from those provisions challenges concepts of fairness and justice. For ground-zero journalists it’s painful, but no surprise. “No one wants to say that yes, this existed, because that opens up the door for anyone who was down there to ask for help,” says Gary Fabiano, the freelance photographer who took refuge at the loading dock on 9/11. He says he feels helpless to change things for himself, or for others. And he knows that no matter what happened before, the next time there’s a catastrophe and the air is poisoned, he’ll be expected to rush in, no questions asked.
And he says he probably will.