Aftermath of the 9/11 Disaster
An Interview with Firefighter/Author Dennis Smith
by Jenna Orkin
[This is an interview with Dennis Smith, author of Report From Ground Zero, regarding the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attack. It was conducted by Jenna Orkin of the World Trade Center Environmental Organization.]
Last week the Court of Appeals ruled that the New York City Fire Department must release interviews with firefighters held after 9/11, with the exception of sections that might cause embarrassment or pain.
Like any discussion of the horrors of that day and its aftermath, the following interview with ex-firefighter and author Dennis Smith may cause pain but Smith was generous nonetheless.
The interview took place December 9, 2003 in Smith's apartment on the Upper West Side, near ABC studios where Smith's son, one of five children, was a producer. It was in an office at these studios that a baby was exposed to anthrax shortly after 9/11. (He recovered.)
We had already spoken on the phone about Smith's take on the health issues of firefighters at Ground Zero, which I wanted to know about for a memoir I was writing on the environmental disaster of 9/11. But it turned out that Smith had intended some of his remarks to be off the record so he suggested a second interview in person.
He was a trim man, small by firefighter standards. The apartment was furnished in the muted tones of the 18th century, the shelves stocked with art books. Voltaire's desk rested against the wall. I knew it was Voltaire's desk because I'd asked; Smith had mentioned it in his book on the recovery effort, Report from Ground Zero: The Story of the Rescue Efforts at the World Trade Center .
"It's from his house in Switzerland," Smith began, "but I don't think he ever wrote at it. Anyone who knows anything about Voltaire knows he dictated as he walked."
"What does it feel like to write at it?"
"I just do handwritten correspondence there, Ma'am. My computer is upstairs."
The polite firefighter in response to a woman's silly question. We'll get past my golly-gee gawking; I had to ask.
"I was concerned about what you wrote. I hadn't intended all that to be published."
I can imagine that concern: "Aagh!" It's a reaction one frequently encounters when it dawns on people you're writing a book; anything they say may be used against them. Considering which, Smith has been the consummate gentleman. Anyway, I don't want enemies, certainly not among the good guys.
"Sometimes I think I should wear a sandwich board that says, 'Warning: Memoirist at Work,'" I reply. "What would you like to say about being at Ground Zero?"
"We knew the place was unhealthy. What we don't know is how those carcinogens work together. Asbestos has a 5-20 year incubation period."
"Forty. But we don't know if some of these contaminants can have an effect in two years."
In our previous conversation, Smith has mentioned several cancers among Ground Zero workers which some medical professionals believe may be attributable to exposure to 9/11 contaminants. "I've heard people say that there will be a time bomb effect," he says now.
"You wrote that firefighters had trouble with their eyes. What was the diagnosis?"
"People's eyes got filled with microscopic pieces of dust. Many firefighters' eyes were caked shut. My eyes were caked. Others were so bad they had to go to the hospital to have their eyes opened. I used a spray bottle of a clear medicinal water. [The next sentence, which is indecipherable in my handwritten notes, mentions saline solution.] But that's nothing new for firefighters."
"Yeah. You talk in the book about how firefighters crawl through smoke, coughing til they're nearly unconscious, as part of their training. It's called, 'taking a beating' and it would violate OSHA regulations."
"OSHA didn't exist at the time we were doing that. But the conditions for firefighters are definitely unhealthy. In New York CIty there's a lung cancer bill for firefighters so that it's presumed to be caused by the job."
"Even if they smoke?"
"I think so. Do you smoke?"
"Does your son smoke?"
"No. My father smoked."
"Is he alive?"
"No. He died of a brain tumor at fifty-seven."
"That's not from smoking."
"The primary tumor may have been somewhere else."
"And metastasized, you mean."
"My children smoke. I'm always after them. But there's a myth that the lungs repair themselves in five years.
'At Ground Zero there was a group of doctors who'd created a cleansing system that consists of repeated saunas, exercises and vitamins. It was developed by L. Ron Hubbard. Of course some doctors say any firefighter would feel better after doing four saunas a day."
"Did insurance pay for this?"
"No. The Church of Scientology paid for it, for firefighters only. Their offices were down around Fulton Street. An ornate, yellow building from the 1890's. Do you know it?
'These people had a big heart. But they were also trying to prove something. Toxic metals tend to stay in the body. They don't digest out of the body. The [doctors doing the treatment] showed me towels of different color sweat - purple, yellow, red... Detoxification exists only in sweat according to them. The treatment took thirty days."
"Did you do it?"
"Why not? It sounds like a vacation."
"It seemed like work to me. It took three hours. You had to go on the treadmill... X and those doctors don't think much of the treatment. But these firefighters were desperate for some sort of relief. They couldn't walk upstairs."
"Did they go back to work?"
"On night duty or sick leave."
"You talked in your book about Mafia involvement in the fireproofing of the World Trade Center. Was that the asbestos or the other stuff?"
"The other stuff. The World Trade Center was under construction three years before they outlawed asbestos. There was spray-on fireproofing. You've seen it. It looks like rough caulking. It goes over the steel. What I was told - I'd have to go to my notes but the information was credible enough for me to write it - was that the steel had been lying around rusting for months. It had to do with the litigation with the Port Authority.
'The beams were not adequately cleaned before the fireproofing was applied. It was put on top of rust. When it was tested in '93 after the first explosion, they hit it with a hammer and it fell off. They tried to reapply it but they couldn't get to the underbeam.
'The litigation lasted from the day the WTC opened just about til '92 when Dibono was found in the basement of the South Tower."
In his book Smith says that Louis Dibono, head of the company that applied the fireproofing, was part of the John Gotti family. He died from multiple gunshot wounds.
"That litigation was created by the Port Authority against this construction company," Smith continues. "There wasn't any settlement. The company went kaput."
"Would it have been possible to fireproof the building?"
"No. Local law requires a rating system. Steel can burn for two hours before it melts. The New York requirement is more than in the rest of the country. It has a three hour rating."
I imagine this is because the buildings are taller or there are more of them.
"Did you read the paperback edition of my book?"
"The last seven pages which were added later have that information. The National Institute of Standards and Technology were given a thirty million dollar grant. It was laughable to me because they came to the same conclusion I came to in my book. They found that the floors collapsed in the heat. The government has its heart in the right place but [studies] have to do with keeping people employed. I'd rather take that thirty million and put it in public schools. Even if you got ten kids to get A's instead of B's it would be worth it."
"How has 9/11 changed your politics?"
"If anything it's made me more conservative because I recognize we have to rely on our own diligence to protect ourselves. This is true on the left as well as the right. It's laxity of government that's created chaos and almost all the ability of radical Islamists to wreak havoc. Bernard Lewis said we should have invaded Iraq in 1993 and [he cites other years] but we didn't and we paid that price."
"But the terrorists didn't come from Iraq."
"That's true. But if there's any good to come out of this invasion it's that it'll force those governments to reevaluate themselves. They've left most of their populations behind."
"That would take a long time, for them to change their thinking to such an extent."
"Fifty years... Did you see Hillary Clinton's fusillades yesterday? She said the Bush administration didn't have to embroider information. There was enough. If that's true, why didn't we go into Iraq when the Cole was bombed?"
"We should talk about masks. What kind of respirators do firefighters usually wear?"
"It's not a respirator which is forced air[?] This is a self-contained air tank."
"How long does it last?"
"The new ones, about forty-five minutes. The mask whistles when it's running low. You have to go out and replace it."
"Why didn't the firefighters wear masks at Ground Zero?"
"No one thought of the danger of ingestion. If you can breathe they thought it was O.K. It's a shame. I think there's room for litigation among the first responders. [Since this interview, several lawsuits have been filed.]
'Everyone assumed the environment was dangerous in terms of smoke and dust."
This apparent contradiction of his previous statement is probably resolvable by distinguishing between long-term versus immediate dangers. But this is not a trial and I let the contradiction pass.
"Even the bosses didn't wear masks. It was only in the second week the firefighters were asked to wear masks. You know, the mask weighs thirty pounds.
'Those first six weeks before the cranes did most of the work were intensive. To have masks was impractical. I used a filter mask when I took a body out after decomposition but generally not. Many firefighters purposefully didn't wear masks because they wanted to smell bodies."
"Some people say that because Christy Todd Whitman said the air was safe, rescue workers didn't feel it necessary to wear masks." (I am one of twelve original plaintiffs in a potential class action lawsuit against Whitman and the EPA.)
"I don't think people felt that. Ground Zero was led by smart people, experienced in emergency services, or the police. They knew there's room for litigation against the city.
'In any emergency you act beyond the norm to try to mitigate. Any act of heroism is against the norm. In my book I talk about the firefighters who knew they might not come out. Terry Hutton saying, "I want you to know I love you.' Other officers said, 'We might not survive this.' All that is evidence they knew the buildings could come down. There were six examples."
"But firefighters go into burning buildings every day."
"You don't think when you go into a burning building that you won't survive. You have confidence in the people you work with that you're protected against flashover fires and holes. There are always indications a building is going to collapse. The chief is trained to look for cracks in the wall, separations in the bricks."
"So what would the litigation against the city be for?"
"For not insisting that everyone wear masks."
"They did insist at the Pentagon."
"Christy Todd Whitman explained - I don't remember if it was to my satisfaction or not - that she didn't mean the air was clear."
"If the city had said, 'You've got to wear your mask,' would the firefighters have done it?"
"I think so. Of course you'd have to have enough tanks and the facility to refill them."
"Lieutenant Manny Gomez testified he brought a mask. But he was told not to wear it for fear of panicking people." (He also testified at a hearing held by the EPA Ombudsman that there were many masks available but they went unused.)
"It doesn't surprise me. [On the other hand] I saw a chief begging men to wear masks. But the grief was extraordinary and the motivation. So it was hard to boss people around. The chief said, 'Put the mask on. The OSHA guys are here.' Some people did it."
"How does this make you feel about Giuliani?" In his book Smith praises the Mayor.
"He didn't have much to do with that. He understood that the person who controlled the information was central to the memory. This was the first major attack on U.S. soil since 1812. When Hawaii was attacked it wasn't a state.
'No one had the authority to say anything, not EPA, not DEP. Giuliani had to say everything in a way even the Governor couldn't."
"Did you think, based on what you saw, that people should be allowed to move back in?"
"Then I did." He emphasized the word 'then' to imply he no longer thought so. "When you hit a piece of furniture," he hit the arm of the couch as resident/activist Catherine McVay Hughes had hit the table to make the same point in her interview, "thousands of dust particles get released into the air. You don't see them. But down there you could SEE the residue. It would cloud up like powder."
"How did it happen that they never found a doorknob - everything was atomized - but they found body parts?"
"They only found parts of 1250 people. So there was a huge number of people for whom no DNA was found. People who weren't atomized were protected by firefighters, by their equipment.
'It's a very peculiar thing, how many naked bodies were found."
"What do you make of it? The clothes were burned off?"
"Or torn. When those buildings fell they imploded like a huge mixer. A body didn't have a chance to stay contained. The buidlings fell at 600 mph. It took twelve seconds. But 292 bodies were found whole."
"What was being there like? I know you wrote about some of that in your book."
"I suppose what I didn't say are those things I felt shouldn't be said.
'The way the community of 9/11 worked, if firefighters from Chicago came, they'd be let in. I don't know if they were needed or not. But if they had gloves and boots, they were allowed to work."
'I remember one day seeing a bunch of policewomen, I guess they came down from some detail. Often people at the site weren't working in full protective gear but in shirtsleeves and hard helmets. They found a police officer's body. The way things worked in the services, they found a badge or a gun, they'd leave it to that service and give it a military aspect. These people chose to go into these buildings. They were taken with the same stature as they had when they went in. I wondered what was going through their minds as they carried the body. It's rare to see eight policewomen together."
"Why did the fires burn for so long?"
"You know how many long burning fires there are in this country? There are fires that have been burning for years. Tires are buried in a pit and it would cost 43 million dollars to get to them to put out the fire."
"Could the WTC fires have been put out sooner, say, by injecting nitrogen?"
"No. The Fire Department was aware of the ways to fight deepseated fires, how to dynamite the walls down. But they took them down piece by piece because it was safer to do it that way. They were also concerned with the integrity of the slurry wall."
"And the need to search for body parts."
"Yes. That was almost holy in the beginning, the care and prudence given to the lifting of every beam After that we needed the steel in order to find out why the towers went down, to be prepared the next time. There were grapplers that could lift the steel chinks. Then they also had a system of spotters with long-range telescopes and binoculars. Others sat in the trucks. It's not foolproof. But to understand empirically why the towers went down, the Fire Department knew you'd have to have the steel. When the Columbia went down we spent 40 million dollars to find out why."
"And there are a lot more skyscrapers than spaceships. Some of that steel wound up in Third World countries: South Korea, India."
"China too. If I'd been Mayor or head of the Department of Design and Construction, I would've said, 'Let's rent a field in New Jersey and put the steel there for a couple of years.' Maybe they thought of that and the EPA said it wasn't a good idea. Who knows?
'Every beam was numbered and coded."
"You could see that?"
"Oh yeah. When steel melts, it bends and weakens. It doesn't disintegrate like molten steel. It loses its ability to hold."
"So you weren't astonished when the buildings collapsed?"
"No. Anyone who's ever been in the WTC knows how big it is. You see ten floors on fire, that's ten acres." Some experts have raised questions about the speed at which the towers fell and other evidence which they say suggests that a controlled demolition was also involved. "How are you going to fight a fire like that? Last time I was in the WTC, the June before, I was at an art exhibit and we had lunch on the roof: Windows on the World."
"Have you fought wild fires like the ones out West?"
"Sure. We've had huge brush fires in New York: Queens, Staten Island, the Bronx, Orchard Beach. None in Manhattan that I can think of.
'Those fires, the volume of fire, it's three feet high for two blocks then suddently it's ten feet high for two blocks.
'When you study to become a firefighter do they tell you that at such and such a temperature, dioxin forms and at another temperature some other contaminant forms?"
"You take a course in it. You learn more about the ability of fire to reproduce itself. There's a phenomenon of air currents in a fire. You take thirty candles and put them one foot away from each other, they'll stay separate. Four inches away, they integrate at the top and grow to twice their size.' 'Years ago I went to the Mutual Company factory, to their fire investigation lab to get fire ratings. They burn everything there. If you burn a strip of polyurethane holding it horizontally it burns slowly. The carcinogens it emits are extraordinary. They'd kill you in two minutes.
'But if you place the polyurethane vertically, say, a ten foot strip, the fire rises to the top in thirty seconds. That's what happened in that nightclub last year. The polyurethane was used as soundproofing. Polyurethane flat burns with the physical rules of radiated heat, say, from left to right. Vertically, bottom to top it burns like gasoline because heat rises. The natural instinct of heat is like water seeking its own level. As it rises it doubles its volume every sixty seconds. In polyurethane it's twice as fast."
Jenna Orkin has written articles for Counterpunch and other websites on the environmental disaster of 9/11 as well as other subjects. She is an activist, currently as Spokesperson for the World Trade Center Environmental Organization