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In one disturbing analysis done by the U.S. Geological Survey, the dust had such high alkalinity levels it rivaled liquid Drano.
Thomas Cahill, a physicist who sent a team to analyze the plume from a rooftop a mile away from ground zero, says he got worried once he noticed the color of the smoke had turned a fluorescent blue. That's a sure sign that ultra-fine particles (which can go deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream) were coming off the Pile and permeating the air. When his team tested the plume, the scientists found higher levels of sulfuric acid, heavy metals, and other insoluble materials than anywhere else in the world, even in the Kuwaiti oil fields. "Not nice stuff," says Cahill, a professor emeritus of physics at the University of California at Davis, who has published three papers on the 9-11 plume, "and it was all being liberated by that smoldering pile, so those people got the full force of it."
Today, Cahill is trying to identify what exactly the recovery workers were inhaling, but the data are incomplete. He does know one thing for certain: "You'd have to stand by a busy highway for eight years to get what these people on the site got in just four weeks." He then adds, "These poor people are part of an enormous experiment, I think."
In May 2003, John Walcott was 39 years old. He had just become a first-time fatherof his daughter, Colleenand had proudly coached a Bedford high school hockey team to the state regionals. That spring, he had noticed his energy fade. But he figured his 16-hour days juggling the narcotics beat, hockey practice, and parenthood were finally catching up to him. Still, the fatigue would consume him for weeks. He'd fall asleep at his desk or behind the wheel. Often he'd nod off in the middle of a conversation.
Then he got the diagnosis: acute myelogenous leukemia, a white-blood-cell cancer. He was ordered straight to the hospital, where he underwent chemotherapy for the next 28 days.
Eventually, a nurse would ask Walcott questions similar to those put to Valle-buona, the ones meant to pinpoint the possible causes for his cancer. Like Vallebuona, Walcott answered no to all the questions. And like Vallebuona, he didn't connect the dots between his time at ground zero and the cancer growing in his body.
Visiting him in the hospital later, his sister, Debbie, did.
"John," she said, "what the hell do you think you were around at ground zero?"
It was a question that Gary Acker would also have to confront that summer, in a visit to his own doctor's office. The AT&T manager had never shaken that World Trade Center cough, struggling with sore throats and lung infections for 18 months after completing his recovery work, suffering through all kinds of inhalers and antibiotic regimens. At one point, his doctor diagnosed him with sleep apnea and ordered him to wear a pilot-like mask strapped over his face at night, so as to reduce his roaring snores. It didn't work.
A perennial optimist, Acker ignored any hint that his health problems were 9-11 related. In September 2002, he got the first warning that his health was deteriorating from exposure to the dust cloud when he underwent a pulmonary test for the company. He was stunned by the doctor's response.
"How many packs of cigarettes do you smoke a day?" the doctor asked Acker.
"I don't smoke. I never have in my life."
"Well, you have a real breathing problem," the doctor informed him.
His second warning came in the summer of 2003, as Walcott was getting chemotherapy. In August, Acker was landscaping the backyard at his home, in Columbus, New Jersey, carrying two 50-pound buckets of stones, when his body buckled under a jolt of pain. It felt as if somebody had jabbed a fishhook into his rib cage and was slowly gutting him. He allowed for the possibility of a kidney stone and paid a trip to the doctor. Days later, he got a diagnosis that would stop his heart cold: multiple myeloma, a plasma cell cancer. Already, the super- advanced cancer had eaten its way through the bone marrow in his ribs, as well as many other bones in his body.
For a fleeting moment, Acker thought about that thick and foul plume hanging over the Pile; could it have caused his cancer? But his optimism flooded back and he focused on his treatment insteadon the chemotherapy pills that he would take twice a day for the next 28 days. Only days later, after his oncologist confirmed that his myeloma likely formed in the last two years, did he finally make the tie-in to 9-11.
By the spring of 2004, Acker and Walcott had endured not only months of chemotherapy, but also stem cell transplants. They experienced a series of life-threatening infections and trips in and out of the hospital before beating their cancers into remission.
For a fleeting moment, Gary Acker thought about that thick and foul plume hanging over the Pile; could it have caused his multiple myeloma?
photo: Scott McDermott