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Schatz Anonymous Heroes

Anonymous Heroes: 9/11’s Undocumented Cleanup and Rescue Workers Juliana Schatz, ‘11 Masters Advisers: Mirta Ojito & Elizabeth Fishman

Copyright Juliana Schatz 2011


Schatz Anonymous Heroes

Mid-conversation outside the Workers’ Compensation Board in Brooklyn in January, Alex Macias became short of breath. Macias has a stocky, sturdy build – that of a football player or a long time construction worker – and is not the kind of man to get easily winded from walking a block or two. Though, at only 46, years of heavy labor have left their trace: Deep wrinkles are just starting to set into his dark Andean face. Macias shuffled momentarily in the pocket of his Carhartt jacket and removed his Albuterol inhaler. He raised the spout to his lips and inhaled deeply, letting the medicated vapors fill his irritated lungs. On the long exhale, a small cloud of humidity hung briefly in the air. Ten years ago, Macias’ skilled ironwork provided him with a comfortable salary that allowed him to send money home to his family in Ecuador to pay for, among other things, private schooling for his two older sons. But four months volunteering at Ground Zero as volunteer – cutting steel beams in the search for survivors – left him deeply scared emotionally and physically, and in no shape to continue working. Macias remembers the moment his luck changed. He fled the construction site where he was welding together the structural pieces of a five-story building when he felt the ground shake with the impact of Flight 11 hitting the North Tower on September 11, 2001

. He evacuated towards Midtown, at around 34th Street and Broadway, where he

remained with other New Yorkers, paralyzed by the landscape of desperation before them. Throughout that day and well into the night, people covered in dust steadily emerged, as families frantically searched for lost loved ones. He heard that there might be survivors, people trapped beneath piles of steel beams – the kind he was used. Macias


Schatz Anonymous Heroes worked with ornamental welding of fire escapes and doors, but also took contracts with major companies that erected large buildings. When he thought his expertise might help, he began walking downtown toward what would soon be known as Ground Zero. He noticed a group of Polish ironworkers as they stood near the smoldering mountains of twisted steel just hours after the collapse. “I told them, ‘I ironworker. I can cut,’” recalled Macias in accented English. For two months Macias and the other ironworkers worked furiously together to singe the enormous beams that trapped victims below. He worked as an unpaid volunteer and declined one offer to join the Local 580 Iron Workers’ Union.. He had been offered to join before then, too, but even during a time when who you were and where you were from was a secondary notion to the task of saving lives and getting New York habitable again, 9/11 did not trump the fact that he was undocumented. While no official record exists, advocates estimate that between 1,000 and 2,600 immigrant workers descended onto Ground Zero on 9/11 and the days that followed offering to help. They cleaned the dust and debris in surrounding buildings, served food to firemen under the Red Cross tent, and, on rare occasions, they cut steal beams to clear pathways during the search and rescue. Advocates and doctors who work closely with the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program estimate that 80-90% of the workers, mostly Latino and Polish, were undocumented. Established in 2006, The World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment Center began providing free mental and medical treatment to responders with WTCrelated illnesses. The treatment was indiscriminate of immigration status, but by the time


Schatz Anonymous Heroes it was available, fears of deportation and misinformation kept many eligible sick away from government sponsored clinics. Like the firefighters and policemen who became ill from exposure to the haze of toxic dust surrounding lower Manhattan, immigrant workers who have chosen to register faced an uphill battle to convince the government that their health conditions merit reparation. While the fight to address 9/11’s impact to rescue workers and volunteers is universal , undocumented workers have faced an added challenge when it comes to workers’ compensation. Without proof – a proper identification card or pay stub – the overwhelming task of getting workers’ compensation can be even more extraordinary for workers like Macias and others. Unlike some states, New York State allows volunteers to apply for workers’ compensation benefits, and guaranteed them especially for 9/11 responders. Since 2007 Macias has been receiving workers’ compensation of about $200 a week. But late last year, his compensation insurer decided to stop covering the prescription for an inhaler he uses for his asthma. The insurer sent Macias a letter, stating it did not consider his asthma 9/11 related. On a January morning this year, Macias testified at a hearing to prove his case. “When I tell my doctors when my lungs sting, when I cannot breathe, I’m telling them what I feel,” said Macias, frustrated that this is the third time his health problems have been called into question. “They don’t believe me. I gave everything I had when I was there. All I want is to be healthy again and to provide for my family,” he said, the sense of betrayal noted in his voice.


Schatz Anonymous Heroes

________ On September 12, 2001, a day after the attacks, trucks, vans and buses traveled down Roosevelt Avenue, where loud 7-trains pass overhead on elevated tracks, shaking the pillars of the hundred-year-old bridge that supports it. “They took big trucks and went there to pick up a group of day laborers and brought them here and gave them IDs to do the work.” said LuzDary Giraldo, who works as a Safety and Health Specialist on behalf of immigrants at the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. Cleaning companies subcontracted by the City of New York recruited jornaleros, or day laborers, on 69th Street where undocumented workers tended to congregate and Spanish language television advertised both paid and volunteer positions. Family members called each other and word of mouth spread fast about the employment opportunity. ”I saw on the bottom of the [television] screen that they needed workers and buses were waiting to take people down to 34th and 4th,” says Sonia Tellio, 52, who saw the ads watching cartoons with her grandchildren in her Corona apartment. She felt compelled to volunteer her efforts, not knowing what she would be doing or for how long. Tellio registered with the Red Cross and was put to work after several questions. They handed her a paper nametag with an ID number on it and a hard hat, she said. Sonia, like other volunteers and paid workers, was never asked about her legal status. It is unclear whether resident status was needed in order to volunteer, but at the time no one could have imagined the relevance years down the road.


Schatz Anonymous Heroes Workers arrived by the busload to a location a block from where the World Trade Center used to stand. At the fences, immigrants representing South America, Central America and Mexico, who came from all five boroughs, were divided into groups of 15 or 20 and sent to buildings around the periphery of Ground Zero. “On our first day, we cleaned St. Paul’s Chapel,” remembers Ricardo Espinoza, who was 29 at the time. Espinoza said he took a paid job managing clean up crews for Maxon Restoration, a disaster recovery contractor. With vacuums, wet cloths – and occasionally, thin surgical masks – they entered the church where a 3-inch-thick layer of contaminated soot coated the pews, the altar, and even the bell in the spire. Sub-contractors hired cleanup crews to work 12-15 hour days at a rate of $7.50 an hour, with no overtime. Rafael Velasco, a legal resident, who was certified in asbestos removal and a member of the Local 78 Asbestos Union, saw many of the paid workers in the buildings with gloves and sometimes without, working without any formal training in asbestos removal, filling dozens of large garbage bags a day with fluffy soot that likely contained asbestos, lead, polyurethane, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury, among other pollutants. According to Philip Landrigan, a professor of medicine at Mt. Sinai Hospital who oversees the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program and who was interviewed on this subject by The Tribeca Tribune in 2007, the dust they encountered has “been described as pulverized Drano. When it hit the wet membranes of the nose, throat and lungs, it caused intense inflammation, which resulted in scarring and decreased lung volume.”


Schatz Anonymous Heroes ________ Oscar Paredes is no stranger to defending workers’ rights. In his native Ecuador, he dedicated his life to organizing laborers giving them the tools they needed to combat unfair wages and bad working conditions in Ecuador. Since moving to the United States in 1997, he has defended thousands of immigrant laborers as the executive director of the Queens-based Latin American Workers Project. Two weeks after the attacks, about 20 jornaleros, day laborers who had been working near Ground Zero, began trickling into his Brooklyn office. “They came for help recovering their salaries because they were not being paid,” said Paredes. But soon he discovered their situation was much graver. They told him they felt dizzy. Others were coughing up blood. “‘I thought to myself, ‘All of those peoples, they are inside. They are in the middle of something very bad. They are going to die.’” The morning after the jornaleros came, Paredes put together a team of volunteers to distribute informational pamphlets on Barclay and Fulton Streets, near the World Trade Center. During the fall and winter Paredes continued to denounce the conditions for undocumented workers to the media. In early 2002, with support from New York Community Trust, he opened up a mobile clinic to evaluate the health of the laborers. He found himself overwhelmed with the hundreds of people who turned out, many of whom were unionized construction workers who also felt nauseated and dizzy from the chemicals they were inhaling. Foreseeing a serious health problem, Paredes and other grassroots groups began organizing a committee of workers. They referred the sick to clinics at Bellevue and Mount Sinai. It would take five more years before Mayor Bloomberg announced a


Schatz Anonymous Heroes comprehensive citywide effort to address 9/11 World Trade Center health-related issues. In 2006 the worst health effects from 9/11 became apparent. There were consistent diagnoses: steep declines in pulmonary function, gastro-esophageal reflux, and cancer. Mental health issues presented were largely identified as post-traumatic stress disorder. After 2006,undocumented immigrants and other workers, who were not first responders, were welcome at the participating WTC Centers of Excellence clinics where care was provided to all responders and clean up workers. But as the immigration system became increasingly stringent, getting to appointments proved risky and a reminder of deportation concerns. LuzDary Giraldo, who represented immigrant workers for the New York Center for Occupational Health and Safety, received a call one day from a young man who was apprehended on an Amtrak train headed to his appointment. Ten days later, he was deported to Colombia. “Getting doctors and clinics in Colombia to understand the symptoms and the illnesses that all of those people are developing is very difficult,” says Giraldo of the young man and others who have been deported. “They are very sick and they cannot pay for their health care in another country.” ________ Despite the struggles faced by undocumented workers, the 9/11 workers – both paid and volunteers - remained faithful that Washington would help them in return for their contribution to making areas around Lower Manhattan inhabitable again after 9/11. Resurrected after failing to pass in 2006, the Zadroga bill was reintroduced to extend current health care and monitoring for those who were exposed to the dust on 9/11


Schatz Anonymous Heroes Immigration generally stayed out of the debate until it came up unexpectedly in a partisan debacle while the House looked at the bill. Initially both Democrats and Republicans supported the bill, which never referenced undocumented immigrants. Then, the Democratic majority introduced a procedure for a two-thirds majority vote. Democrats did so in response to Republicans who proposed an amendment that would exclude illegal immigrants. The Black and Hispanic Caucuses did not want to cast a vote that would be unpopular with their constituencies. In July, the two-thirds majority vote failed, igniting a firestorm of partisan discourse on the House floor and on cable news channels. Just after the New Year, President Obama signed The 9/11 Health and Compensation Act into law. It ensures that those affected by September 11 will continue to receive free monitoring and treatment services for 9/11-related health problems through at least 2015. Additionally, it re-opens the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, which was closed for several years. Giraldo is worried that the immigration debate will re-emerge up this Spring when legislators debate where exactly to allocate the new money from the Compensation Act. The federal government has until July 1, 2011 to implement the funds. “Just wait until July,” says Giraldo. “This isn’t over.” She fears that anti-immigrant sentiment will carry into discussions about distribution like it did last Summer, affecting the access to resources for immigrants.

Settlement money is also coming in for those who filed cases against the city, but Paredes worries about that, too. “Lawyers are trying to take advantage of the money,” says


Schatz Anonymous Heroes Paredes. He adds, the letters that arrive to claimants are written in jargon that confuses victims. They say if victims do not enlist with them, they risk losing their settlement money. Macias not expecting money from the large settlement, but now that the Zadroga Bill has passed, he is relieved that he can continue receiving care. Macias sees both a pulmonologist and a psychotherapist as a result of his 9/11 illnesses and with the bill passed, he can continue doing so for five more years. But if he has any other condition, such as an emergency trip to the hospital for fainting, for example, he still has no coverage to pay. Still Alex is grateful of the help he has received. He is also proud of his contributions to the WTC clean up efforts; “I did it as a human being, without any interest except helping others,� he said.


Schatz Anonymous Heroes Source List Oscar Paredes, Latin American Workers’ Project, 917-349-2241 LuzDary Giraldo, NYCOSH, Jaime Carcamo, Psychologist, 718-24-9292; 516-551-0492 Rosa Espinosa, 347-948-1635 Alexander Macias, 347-898-7662 Marie Stelluti, World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment, 212-824-7028 Jesus Robles, Social Worker at Mt. Sinai, 212-241-9200 (PR) Anthony DePalma, 917-509-1999 Sonia Tellio, 347-935-1537 Charlotta Janssen, Artist, 917-930-4302 Ilan Kayatski for Congressman Nadler, 212-367-7350; 917-757-3104 Rafael Velasco (Union LIUNA – Asbestos Workers), 917-628-4841 Minna Elias for Congresswoman Maloney, 212-860-0606 Catherine McVay Hughes, Community Board 1, 212-442-5050 Ricardo Espinoza, 718-308-5306 (Other interviews that went unused for this project are available on request) _________ “City of Dust: Illness, Arrogance, and 9/11” by Anthony DePalma “Toxic Legacy,” New York Times television documentary The Queens Courier, 7442145.txt


Schatz Anonymous Heroes The Tribeca Tribune, The New York Daily News, The Christian Science Monitor, AP Images, courtesy of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism


Schatz Anonymous Heroes Post Script I spent the first month of my master’s project reporting about a reverse migration program created by the Ecuadorian government to draw migrants living in the United States back to Ecuador. I was fairly successful and conducted interviews with the Ecuadorian officials and several other knowledgeable sources. I liked the subject and was able to conceptualize the narrative, but by December I struggled to find a character. That was precisely why, on December 20th, I went to SENAMI, the Ecuadorian Migrants Office. Any one interested in reverse migration had to pass through that office. So I staked it out, basically waiting for some one who was willing to share their story with me. Then – my story, quite literally, walked in the door. He was waiting for an appointment with the director of the SENAMI project. His name was Oscar ParedesMorales. I told him I was a journalist and the topic I was reporting on. We chatted for a while and then he revealed to me that he was a community organizer representing undocumented 9/11 clean up workers, The Latin American Workers Project. Many of the workers, like their documented counterparts, were falling ill with respiratory failure and cancer. Unlike the documented, those without papers had added challenges like deportation – despite their acts of patriotism. Completely captivated by his story, I asked Paredes when I could meet some of the cleanup workers he represented. “Tonight,” he said with a smile. Coincidentally, that night was the LAWP’s Christmas party. I had a prior engagement that I bailed on in order to attend. At the party I met Alex Macias and his wife, Rosa, and four other people enthusiastic about sharing their stories.


Schatz Anonymous Heroes I left the LAWP headquarters in a buzz. I knew immediately that it was the story I had to pursue. Once I arrived home, first I emailed my adviser, Mirta Ojito, and then I went to Lexis Nexis to find anything and everything I could find about 9/11 and undocumented clean up workers. I was not well educated about the toxic effects the debris from 9/11 had on responders and clean up workers, and in my research found a book called, “City of Dust: Illness, Arrogance, and 9/11” by Anthony DePalma. Everything I needed to know about the dust’s affect on responders was in there. I wanted to know if anything had been written specifically about undocumented workers and volunteers, so I sent Mr. DePalma a personal note. At the time, I had no idea Mr. DePalma was a professor at Columbia Journalism School or that he had several master’s advisees himself. Still, he was gracious and told me I could meet him for coffee. Before that, I spent winter break continuing my research and drove down to New York from my mom’s house in Connecticut to interview the sick 9/11 workers who I met at LAWP. Their stories were heartbreaking. It caused each one of them very much pain to recall their experience. I worried, because some mentioned thoughts of suicide in their past. Before going any further, I reached out to Bruce Shapiro from the DART Center on Journalism and Trauma. Mr. Shapiro stepped me through the trauma process and we talked about some of the things I could do to conduct a productive interview, without overstepping my bounds. My meeting with Mr. DePalma was essential at the beginning stage of my project. I had little time, by that time, January, to figure out what I was doing and get as much


Schatz Anonymous Heroes reporting done as I could --- and shoot enough footage for my video. DePalma was the perfect person to frame the story and remind me not to be sympathetic and loose sight of my critical eye, but to be empathetic instead. He gave me another book that was not his own and a DVD I requested about the same subject. He gave me a list of people – or the kind of people – I should reach out to. They included the director of The World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment, a woman from Community Board One, and an industrial hygienist. As soon as I could, I had a camera in my hands. New York City winter is not conducive to camera gear. I recommend investing in a cart. I didn’t know who my video adviser would be until winter break, which could have been a problem if I’d started sooner. But Elizabeth Fishman scheduled a phone conversation and chatted a bit about how to proceed. Initially, I shot more than I needed. I filled my schedule with as many appointments as I could before January 18, when the semester began. That was the best decision I could have made, because once school started, it became very difficult to balance the master’s project and regular class work. In fact, very little shooting took place after winter break. After interviewing several characters, it became clear that Alex’s story was the most compelling. He told me about Charlotta, his witness, about the third time we met. He had the letter she wrote, but no phone number. A little unclear about what to expect, I scratched down the address and went to what I discovered was a restaurant. I went in and asked for Charlotta. The bar tender rang her and immediately I had her on the line. It was


Schatz Anonymous Heroes a lesson in old-fashion shoe leather journalism. Her contributions to the story added a layer I could only have dreamed for.

--- Juliana Schatz, March 21, 2011




Juliana Schatz

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