March 4, 2008
New York Times staff photographer Keith Meyers loved to tackle rigorous assignments, like flying in military jets and scuba diving with astronauts in training.
“He was almost hyper in terms of his energy level,” says friend and fellow Times photographer Fred Conrad. “He could run circles around people.”
On September 11, 2001, Meyers cut short a vacation and raced to New York to help with coverage at Ground Zero. Four days later, Meyers climbed aboard a Coast Guard helicopter to shoot a series of historic pictures, the first aerial news photos of the still-burning World Trade Center site.
As he leaned out of the helicopter, Meyers could feel the rising smoke.
“It was like breathing fire, and I could feel my skin tingling and burning,” he says. A doctor later told him he probably had been exposed to chemicals as caustic as Drano.
Over the next two years, Meyers’s health deteriorated. While covering the New York City blackout in 2003, he suffered several asthma attacks. His energy level diminished, and twice he nodded off behind the wheel while waiting at tollbooths.
Now 59, Meyers suffers from serious breathing problems. Treatment keeps many of his symptoms in check, but he can no longer do his job. He went on indefinite medical leave from The Times last year.
His diagnoses are like a catalogue of the illnesses that afflict 9/11 workers: asthma, rhinitis, sinusitis, gastroesophageal reflux disorder, paradoxical voice box disorder. On top of all that is a feeling of lost identity now that he has given up photojournalism.
“Not working is harder than being sick,” he says. “And that’s the battle I’ve got to fight, because I’ve got to be sure not to do anything to make myself sicker.”
Meyers is not alone. Five other journalists have told PDN they suffer persistent health effects after working at the World Trade Center site, and a sixth has died of cancer. Two of them were unwilling to be named in this article, one for privacy reasons and another because of an ongoing lawsuit.
David Handschuh, a photographer for the New York Daily News, has been working with The New York Press Photographers Association (NYPPA) to make sure these journalists aren’t forgotten.
Handschuh, 48, broke his leg covering the World Trade Center attack and was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. “It’s not a New York problem. It’s a nationwide problem,” Handschuh says when discussing 9/11 health concerns, emphasizing that many out-of-town journalists were part of the coverage.
First responders and construction workers who toiled in the toxic aftermath of 9/11 have been the subject of news reports, political speeches and prize-winning newspaper editorials. But little has been said about the journalists who were exposed to the same conditions.
Handschuh and the NYPPA are advocating for legislation in New York State to extend the deadline for journalists to file 9/11-related workers compensation claims. Last year state lawmakers extended the filing deadline for rescue and recovery workers to August 14, but there is no similar extension for journalists.
For environmental illnesses like asthma and cancer, proving a direct link between cause and effect is difficult. Certain cancers might not appear for decades.
But right now, some journalists are convinced their health problems are the result of their work at Ground Zero.
Keith Silverman, 49, a freelance camera operator who arrived at the World Trade Center the morning of September 11 and spent the next two weeks there for ABC, says he can no longer work in TV. He suffers from chronic sinus issues and is in remission from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, problems he believes come from exposure to dust and smoke at Ground Zero. “They don’t know what we breathed in because there were so many carcinogens in the air,” he says.
Philippe Gassot, 52, a Washington, D.C.-based correspondent for French TV and radio; Jim Purcell, 42, publisher of a weekly newspaper in Middletown, New Jersey; and another photo- journalist all say they suffer from worsening breathing problems after covering Ground Zero.
A producer for a Canadian TV network spent a week at Ground Zero after 9/11. He was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in June 2002 and died of lung failure in 2004. His wife (who requested that his name not be published) says she believes the World Trade Center dust acted as a trigger for this rare form of cancer.
It is likely that there are more. Between 2002 and 2004, The World Trade Center Worker and Volunteer Medical Screening Program surveyed 9,442 workers, including 81 who worked for news agencies. The survey found that this group was five times as likely as the general population to suffer from reduced breathing capacity.
The NYPPA has been encouraging 9/11 journalists to fill out an anonymous online survey. By early February, the survey had logged 161 responses. Respondents reported a variety of breathing problems like asthma and persistent coughing, and symptoms of depression and PTSD. Thirty-six of them said post-9/11 health problems have affected their careers.
When the Twin Towers collapsed, they kicked up a cloud of pulverized cement, glass, lead, asbestos, PCBs, pesticides and other chemicals. Some of the journalists now suffering from health problems feel angry that the government did little to warn people about these dangers. They now scoff at the early assurances that the air was safe.
In a Sept. 13, 2001 press release, Christie Whitman, then head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said, “EPA is greatly relieved to have learned that there appears to be no significant levels of asbestos dust in the air in New York City.”
On Sept. 18, even as the EPA cautioned rescue workers to wash their dust-laden clothes separately from other laundry, Whitman asserted, “The public in these areas is not being exposed to excessive levels of asbestos or other harmful substances.”
The EPA did not have enough information to make such judgments, but they were pressured by the Bush administration to sound reassuring, according to a 2003 EPA Inspector General report. The White House Council on Environmental Quality “convinced the EPA to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones,” according to the report.
Even knowing what they know now, journalists say they would have covered the story anyway. “The adrenaline was running, it was an important news story, I charged in and did it, I’d probably do it again,” Meyers says. “But if I did it again I would be a hell of a lot more careful.”
In a sad bit of irony, the helicopter ride that exposed Meyers to the smoke also earned him a share of a Pulitzer Prize, awarded to the photo staff of The Times in 2002 for its 9/11 portfolio.
“I’m just a guy who did his job and got sick. And I’m in great shape compared to a lot of other people,” he says. “I am scared to death that a lot of our colleagues who were there are going to get sick soon or in five or ten years.”