Death by Dust

The frightening link between the 9-11 toxic cloud and cancer


At 8:30 on the morning of the terrorist attacks, Ernie Vallebuona was driving with his three-year-old son, also named Ernie, to a nearby Home Depot in search of the perfect paint color for the family bathroom. Vallebuona always listens to 1010 WINS in the car, so he turned on the radio. He soon heard the incredible news that a plane had crashed into one of the twin towers. Instantly, he got the call to respond.

"We're all mobilizing," his NYPD supervisor told him via cell phone. "Get to work as fast as you can."

To date, 75 recovery workers at ground zero have been diagnosed with blood cell cancers that a half-dozen top doctors and epidemiologists have confirmed as having been likely caused by that exposure. Ernie Vallabuona is one of them.
photo: Scott McDermott
To date, 75 recovery workers at ground zero have been diagnosed with blood cell cancers that a half-dozen top doctors and epidemiologists have confirmed as having been likely caused by that exposure. Ernie Vallabuona is one of them.

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Over in Pomona, some 36 miles away from Manhattan, 37-year-old NYPD detective John Walcott was at his suburban home, killing time before a midnight tour on the narcotics unit, where he'd worked for a dozen years. He was relaxing on the couch when a friend from St. Louis called.

"What the hell is going on in New York?" the friend asked, incredulously. Walcott had no idea what his friend meant. He flipped on the TV, only to see flames raging from the twin towers. Minutes later, he was behind the wheel of his minivan, speeding down the highway toward the World Trade Center.

Some 200 miles southeast of the Trade Center site, 49-year-old Gary Acker was working in a bomb shelter dubbed the "earth station," an undisclosed location where AT&T keeps its large satellite dishes. At the time, Acker was managing the company's disaster recovery team, which restores critical communications after catastrophes. He had long viewed the post as the crowning achievement in his 31-year career, one that suited his desire to make a difference.

When the first plane hit the north tower, he was sitting in an equipment room, four floors below ground, running emergency drills. No one had turned on the TV, so he remained oblivious to the events unfolding in Manhattan. His wife, Alison, called him.

"Look at the TV," she said, just as the second plane hit the south tower. Acker knew that New York City officials would be calling AT&T for help. "Pack up your equipment," he heard his wife say, "and get ready to ride."

Back in Manhattan, Jessy McCarthy was not about to roll anywhere. The Verizon field technician was sitting in his office on East 91st Street, listening to the news on the radio, when he heard about the planes hitting the towers. He froze in place, unable to pull himself away from the broadcast for hours that day. Only that afternoon did he manage to go to a nearby work site to repair phone lines. Sitting in his truck, he stared in disbelief at all the people doused in gray dust walking up Third Avenue from downtown. His eyes locked on the caravan of people who'd been caught in that cloud.

By the time McCarthy was taking in this ghostly scene, Vallebuona and Walcott had joined thousands of first responders at the World Trade Center. Both arrived at the site shortly after the 110-story twin towers came crashing down, and they spent the next 15 hours sifting through the wreckage. Racing to the scene from the Seventh Precinct, on Pitt Street, Vallebuona encountered a giant cloud of dust and smoke so hazy and dense, he couldn't see his hand in front of his face. He circled the periphery of what he thought was the scene, following the blaring sirens and running past pumper trucks and police cruisers twisted up like discarded tin cans. The dust caked his eyes and coated his lips. It filled his nostrils with a horrible smell, like burned plastic and flesh. Vallebuona happened to have a bandanna in his pants pocket, which he wrapped across his face. It did little to ward off the rancid odor.

Walcott was also experiencing the noxious effects of the chemical brew. While the massive cloud had dissipated, the crystalline particles hung in the air like speckles in a snow globe. He waded though mounds of pulverized dust, knee-deep, tasting it on his lips, spitting it out of his mouth. Without a mask, he was coughing immediately. First came the black mucus and ashen chunks, then the dry heaves and blood. For hours, he wiped away dark gunk dripping from his eyes. He couldn't help but think that something was wrong. But he focused on the mission at hand, on the faint hope of discovering survivors. That day, he stepped over the only human body that he would find intact—a female, burned beyond recognition, a charred bra over her face.

Acker arrived on the scene 24 hours later, after driving with 11 team members up the East Coast in a company trailer equipped with satellite transmission consoles and multiplex cables. He would spend the next 33 days in and around ground zero—first setting up a satellite at 1 Police Plaza, then manning phone lines across the street from what came to be known as the Pile. The plume enveloped the area from the moment he set foot there until he left. Many nights, he'd oversee the satellite atop 1 Police Plaza, just east of ground zero, and watch as the prevailing winds subsided and the bright-blue smoke settled in. It hung so heavily on the city that he couldn't see the guards stationed across the street.

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