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World Trade Center attacks: secondary impacts

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On the playground at Nest, the kindergarteners played “Terrorist Attack.” A Moroccan boy was always “It.” When he tried to catch the other kids, they ran shrieking away from him.

Then came Anthrax, delivered in an envelope to a reporter at the New York Times. Now people talked of new forms of possible attack, germ warfare, particularly small pox. We were told Saddam Hussein had a cocktail of germs ready to unleash on the American public, particularly on New Yorkers. We felt chosen for disaster, and knowing this to be a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, didn’t alleviate the feeling that at any moment, germs carrying bubonic plague would pour out of the pipes and empty into our sinks, that eventually we would all succumb.

After the second Anthrax attack, I asked my husband if he would go out and find us gas masks. “Just in case…”

“Why not Cipra?” he asked. Cipra was the antidote for anthrax. My friend, M, had been sitting by Judith Miller, at the NY Times when she opened an envelope and found it dusted with anthrax. He had been taking Cipra.

It wasn’t rational, but I couldn’t take Cipra. I was pregnant. But I could put on a mask if there was a bioterrorist attack.

It was a Saturday. My husband and son took off on my husband’s bike and returned hours later. He set a bag on the dining room table. I stared at the absurd-looking things. So, its come to this, I thought and was hit with a wave of depression that sent me straight to bed. I slept for hours and hours and by the time I’d woken up, my husband had put the masks away.

They were useless, anyway, he explained later.

“You’d need fitted masks and body suits and antidotes and an advanced medical kit and this for the whole family if they bombed us with small pox germs.”

In other words, it’d be time to close your eyes and just kiss your ass good-bye.

Through all of this, the toxic smoke billowing from the site came and went. It settled over us, then it dissipated. It teased us with by blowing off to other parts, as if it would be carried off forever over the ocean, taking all of its sickening PCBs and asbestos and fiberglass particles and god knew what else. Then it poisoned us when it returned. And yet, the EPA continued to tell us the air was safe to breathe.

The other mothers at NEST felt sorry for me. “I wouldn’t want to be pregnant in the middle of this,” someone I hardly knew told me as we took the city bus home after dropping the kids off, and looking at me pityingly

One morning, when I stood with my son at Houston waiting for the city bus to take us to the East Village to NEST, a white haired woman wearing only a nightgown came wheeling towards us. She was smeared in ash.

She was obviously mentally ill and seemed crazed as she careened towards my five-year-old, holding out her hand. I pulled him against me, and watched the poor weave away from us. In the next second, a fleet of police cars screeched up to the curb, right across West Broadway, and jumped out of their cars, their pointing at a man who was cowering against the wall. “Get your fucking hands up,” one of the cops shouted. This was only a couple of years after cops had unloaded gunshots into Amoudo Diallo, a 22-year-old Muslim Guinean, who had come to New York to study computer science. Diallo had been reaching into his pocket to pull out his ID. The police thought he was reaching for a gun.

I pulled my son closer, worried they’d start shooting.

The bus drove up and we got on.

“Did you hear what he said, Mom?” He said get your fucking hands up. He did say get your fucking hands up, didn’t he Mom.”

The two disconnected events disturbed me for the rest of the day. I couldn’t stop seeing the woman, weaving towards us, covered in ash. I couldn’t get that man out of my mind, cowering up against a wall.

People now tell me I was smart to pick up with my family and leave the city, as I did, ten days later. I often wonder why I did and others didn't. Was I the fool or the genius?

I think my action came from the fact that I've read a great deal about history and politics, and that, as a journalist, who came of age right after the Watergate hearings, I had learned to doubt what public officials say. It's not that I had come to expect officials to lie as spectacularly as Christine Todd Whitman did about the quality of the air in Manhattan. But I had learned to respect my own interpretation of a situation and to give it at least as much weight, if not more, than officialdom.

How do we ever know? How can we be sure?
Now, the city of New York is beseiged with lawsuits filed by workers who got sick after working at Ground Zero. Doctors at Mount Sinai Hospital, who have conducted extensive research on the health of downtowners since 9-11 expect many residents to suffer longterm health impacts. They just aren't sure yet what they will be.

But I didn't know any of that at the time. I simply walked out onto the street and an awful taste lodged in the back of my throat and my nostrils burned. Like everyone around me, I hacked and hacked as my lungs struggled to expel particles carried into them on the air.

In the end, I listened to the information my body gave me and, did what I was told to do as a child. I "followed my gut."

To Canada.

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