Burning for Bush

Misled over air quality, shortchanged in federal funding, union wants four more years

Say this about leaders of the city firefighters' union and their timely endorsement of George W. during the Republican convention: They didn't let past slights get in the way.

In the weeks and months after the collapse of the World Trade Center, firefighters who had dug through the wreckage looked warily at the dust clinging to boots and clothes. Federal officials had declared the air quality safe, but suspicions lingered. Many suffered from deep, hacking coughs, and protective masks were in short supply. The same ominous dust was tracked into their firehouses. But when firefighters asked the Environmental Protection Agency to send in the same professional cleanup crews that it had dispatched to offices and apartments around the Trade Center, the EPA refused. Firehouses didn't meet the program's criteria, officials said.

Firefighters later learned from the report by the EPA's own inspector general that the air quality assurances were doctored by unnamed White House aides, who deleted cautionary warnings and inserted upbeat language. The suspicions about the dust were also confirmed. In a report released last month by the Sierra Club, studies found that the grime on firefighters' boots contained toxic chemicals at a level more than 400 times the threshold required by the federal government for a soil cleanup.

The long-term effect on the health of firefighters and others remains to be seen. Some 332 firefighters have developed the "World Trade Center cough"—an innocent-sounding name for a phenomenon that leaves its victims wheezing and gasping for breath. According to the Sierra Club, one firefighter was diagnosed as suffering from a condition called acute eosinophilic pneumonia. In his lungs, doctors found metal particles, silica, and degraded glass, along with 300 times the amount of asbestos fibers considered "a significant risk for asbestosis."

Again, government officials have balked. A bill that would enhance pensions for cops and firefighters who participated in the rescue effort and who later suffered similar ailments was vetoed last year by Governor Pataki. Passed again by the legislature this session, it remains unsigned.

Yet none of those uncomfortable questions were raised this month when George W. Bush, accompanied by Pataki, showed up at the single most prized photo op of the Republican convention: the president's sit-down at a Queens Boulevard club with firefighters, who bestowed on him the eagerly sought endorsement of the city's 9,000-member Uniformed Firefighters Association.

It was an event months in the planning. Long Island congressman Peter King, who helped engineer the marriage between union and president, said that he began talking to White House adviser Karl Rove and Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman last spring, relaying their comments back to UFA president Steve Cassidy. "I spoke to the president several times about it," said King.

"I know the governor was very appreciative of it," said Jim Boyle, a former head of the union, who lost a son in the towers and who also played a role as matchmaker. "He's a leader; I think the members see him that way."

That was certainly the message the campaign wanted to send. At the convention, the meeting was a stop-the-speeches event, broadcast live on television networks. A grinning Bush shook hands with Cassidy, Boyle, and Bob Beckwith, the lanky ex-firefighter whom the president had embraced in 2001 when he visited rescuers at the still-smoking pile. Happily for the campaign, it drowned out the labor rally held the same day by 50,000 workers outside Madison Square Garden.

"They did it on a day when John Sweeney and the nation's labor leaders were gathered to protest. It seems obvious there was a strategy here," said Peter Gorman, president of the city's 2,600-member Uniformed Fire Officers Association. Along with virtually every other firefighters' union in the country, Gorman's organization has endorsed Democrat John Kerry. It did so back in January and sent campaign workers to New Hampshire to help in the primary there. The endorsement was sparked as much by anger at the sitting president as affection for the challenger. "Right now [Bush] is cutting one-third of the funds for the FIRE grant program for fiscal year 2004–2005," he said.

Gorman, who was arrested in November 2001 when he and others protested Mayor Giuliani's decision to curb efforts to retrieve victims' remains, is still rankled by the EPA cover-up of air quality hazards. "They falsified records to say the air was safe. I understand that under national security you might withhold that information for a few days, but that secret was uncovered two years later. There was no reason for that, and nobody has explained why it was done or who ordered it. The president certainly hasn't."

When the statewide organization of firefighters gathered in Albany last month, more than 100 delegates representing local unions voted to endorse Kerry, said Charles Morello, president of the New York State Professional Fire Fighters Association. The lone holdout was the UFA, which abstained. The endorsement decision wasn't a tough one, said Morello. "The fact is that President Bush has not funded any of the programs for hiring additional firefighters, providing additional training, or obtaining more equipment. Senator Kerry has been a strong supporter of all of those efforts."

Among Kerry's initiatives, said Jeff Zack of the 260,000-member International Association of Fire Fighters, which endorsed the senator last fall, has been backing for initiatives to add thousands more firefighters.

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