On February 26, 1993, Mike Rapp, an architect, was working in the World Trade Center when the floor literally fell out from under him. He was surveying when an explosion hit and he tumbled two stories onto a slab just beneath a broken water pipe. The stream of water at the time looked like it might drown him. In retrospect, he thinks that it probably saved his life, creating a kind of wall of water against the encroaching flames.
Since that horrific day, Rapp, 41, has had half a dozen operations because of injuries sustained in the blast, and marked many anniversaries, including those for the explosion. Meanwhile, the wreckage to the WTC has long since been repaired and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has long since collected on its insurance.
But Rapp, and hundreds of others who were at ground zero when a bomb in a Ryder van exploded seven years ago, have been stuck in a legal, and often medical, limbo. Media coverage of events at the WTC has all but stopped; but the consequences haven’t.
Rapp is one of approximately 80 plaintiffs whose lawsuits were filed by Sullivan, Papain, Block, McGrath & Cannavo P.C., and his is among 400 suits in total still not settled. All the cases have been consolidated and are referred to by the court index number as “600000/1994.” The PA, which operates and is housed in the WTC, has used its considerable resources to fight rather than settle, says Rapp. Some people injured in the explosion are still scrambling to pay medical bills, according to attorneys. Others returned to work soon after, despite disabilities, when workmen’s compensation ran out.
Until December 21, 1999, the lawsuits were essentially delayed. Some attorneys received the full documents last week. Blair Fensterstock, of Fensterstock & Partners LLP, liaison counsel for the cases and head of the steering committee appointed by State Supreme Court Justice Stanley Sklar to oversee them, says, “The Court of Appeals ruled that the PA has no more appeals on this issue.”
Lawyers for the plaintiffs say now they will take depositions from the PA that they needed in order to proceed.
What held things up, and created more of a nightmare than those affected by the bombing think is necessary, depends on who is speaking. But there is agreement that the fight was over documents that would answer the questions: What did executives at the PA know, if anything, about the potential for terrorist acts? and What should they have done about it?
The plaintiffs argued that they had a right to see internal documents in which the PA was warned about precisely the type of bombing that occurred. The PA argued that these were confidential and it was in the public interest to withhold them. Essentially, one side said it was about security; the other said it was about secrecy and a continuing cover-up.
To understand the significance of the more than 70 documents, it helps to know the circumstances under which they were created. Back in the 1980s, the PA created the Office for Special Planning to investigate what should be done to beef up security and prevent terrorism. The OSP’s work was very much under wraps. Between 1984 and 1987, it was headed by Edward O’Sullivan, a former marine who had once worked in antiguerrilla operations. The OSP staff used scrambler phones and other devices so its work could be kept private. The OSP consulted with the FBI, CIA, National Security Agency, the Department of Defense, Scotland Yard, and intelligence and counterterrorist agencies in Israel, France, Switzerland, and Italy.
“The relationship with these agencies was entered into only with the understanding that communications and the scope of the relationship would remain strictly confidential,” says O’Sullivan in court documents. Reports and studies done by or for the OSP went to only a handful of top PA executives. Seven copies of its 1986 terrorism study were made. Each was hand-delivered and signed for by its intended recipient, according to O’Sullivan.
“[The OSP report’s] primary conclusion, as far as we’re concerned,” says Fensterstock, “was that the World Trade Center was the most likely building to be bombed in the United States. And the way to do it would be to drive a van down into the basement, exactly the way it happened. It was negligence, gross negligence and recklessness.”
The PA has collected millions from its own insurance policies, but insists it isn’t liable for the 1993 bombing incident and estimates it has paid out $250,000 to people injured in the blast.
For Rapp—who lives in Queens and works for the SCR Design Organization in Manhattan—and many others, the explosion has had long-term repercussions that they never expected. And while there is concern over threats of future acts of terrorism, WTC victims are still dealing with the results of one already past. None of them has spoken out until now for various reasons: Many have been afraid that to do so would further delay, or hurt, their cases. And for years, some were afraid that if they criticized workmen’s compensation, their care would be held up even further.
“They would like to see it come to a closure. But they’re just not going to walk away and just not do anything,” says Cyrus Diamond, representing clients through Sullivan et al. “There are people who have never returned to work. People have been afraid to go back to the building, to go into buildings where there are elevators, to go into high-rise buildings, to be in the borough of Manhattan. They’re still paying medical bills. A lot of them are still receiving medical treatment.”
Today, according to the Port Authority, there are about $1.5 billion in remaining claims and about 400 remaining “600000/94” cases. A handful of WTC cases—between five and ten—were filed in New Jersey; all have been settled or dismissed.
The WTC case has dragged on so long that plaintiffs have become discouraged, sometimes moved away, and often became frustrated with a process that they saw as taking forever. “Call me the next millennium,” Helenmary Rapp, Mike Rapp’s wife, says she was told by a lawyer.
The PA, on the other hand, views itself as “a victim of a bombing, a terrorist bombing almost seven years ago,” says Allen Morrison, a spokesman for the PA. “This is a litigious society. So who do you sue? The Port Authority. That’s what the story’s about fundamentally.”
But the families of people at the World Trade Center see it differently. For them, this is about people victimized twice, once by an event and once by a system. Ironically, the fact that many people, such as Rapp, were covered by workmen’s compensation for medical costs, has turned into a double-edged sword. If the victims hadn’t been at work, their own, often better, insurance policies would have covered them. Instead, they were plunged into the pool of workmen’s comp cases, and then were caught up in a large bureaucracy, often slow to approve procedures and pay doctors. It took Rapp over a year, and finally a call from then Congressman Charles Schumer’s office to workmen’s compensation, to get a crucial operation approved and done. By the time the operation was done, infection had spread and a section of bone in his leg had to be removed.
“As bad as what happened to him was,” says Helenmary Rapp, “worse than that was how we were treated by the government, the system. All he did was go to work. We were trapped in a system that doesn’t work.”