New York firefighter Joe Higgins can no longer fight fires. He involuntarily retired from the New York Fire Department shortly after responding to the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center because of health problems caused by a variety of toxins released when the skyscrapers collapsed.
Higgins lost two brothers – both firefighters – in the disaster. In the following months, he had trouble breathing and sleeping. He was often awakened by nightmares and, he says, the trauma always will stay with him.
Like Higgins, many firefighters who were at Ground Zero still suffer from not only the terrible memories of Sept. 11., but also from toxic exposure. Firefighters have spent the two years since the attacks going to memorial services and funerals for their colleagues while also dealing with their own deteriorating health.
“There was so many sick members of the teams,” said Israel Miranda, health and safety coordinator for one of New York’s paramedics unions. “After many surveys, the long-term said that 10 years down the line, a lot of these guys wouldn’t have a quality of life.”
Five New York firefighters and emergency medical services personnel who suffered physically and mentally from the tragedy of Sept. 11 visited the Vail Valley Tuesday.
The group met with local firefighters at Vail’s firehouse and went to the Vilar Center to attend the Beaver Creek Theatre Festival performance of “The Guys” – a play based on a real New York fire chief who faced the unbearable task of eulogizing most of his crew who died in the attacks.
They also attended a fund raiser Tuesday night.
“These guys are just like us,” Vail Fire Chief John Gulick said. “There are so many similarities between our departments, except that their department is more intense.”
After the attacks on the World Trade Center, many of the firefighters say they didn’t think they’d see the age of 50. Others said they would be taking medicine for the rest of their life just to breath.
“When you remain on meds, that’s just something you do,” Higgins said. “It’s not a problem to be in the field only for so long because that’s what we did for a living. We dug people out of the rubble. We were on automatic pilot.”
While the firefighters worked around the clock for days at Ground Zero cleaning up the remains of the towers, many noticed physical affects from the toxins. The attacks on the towers, and their collapse, brought toxins that began with a dust storm of pulverized concrete, steel, asbestos, carpeting, office equipment and other hazardous materials.
“There were many sick people,” Miranda said. “I had trouble sleeping. I was edgy all the time. I snapped at my family and my children.
“These are traits you do not need when you’re responsible for the health and safety unit of the biggest EMS in the country,” he said.
The toxins released after the buildings came down caused many to suffer asthma, heart conditions and trauma.
“These guys weren’t sleeping, they weren’t eating and they couldn’t exercise,” said Joanie Sigel, a spokeswoman for the New York Rescue Workers Detoxification Fund. “In September 2002, we opened a detoxification clinic in downtown Manhattan with more than 150 rescue workers who received the detox.”
The detoxification clinic is part of a research project that was founded more than 20 years ago to help remove drugs and residuals from the body, said Jim Woodworth, director of operations for the New York Rescue Workers Detoxificiation Project.
Two clinics were set up in Los Angeles by medical doctors who used L. Ron Hubbard ‘s method of detoxification.
“Thousands of people went through the program with chemical exposures and street drugs with great success,” Woodworth said. “We started to receive calls as early as Sept. 14 from people who knew about the program and asked us for help.”
The program involves a precise regimen of daily sauna bathing and exercise along with vitamin-, mineral- and oil-supplements, he said.
“The guys miraculously reversed my health,” Higgins said. “After long hospital visits and months of drugs and prescriptions to keep me breathing, I resigned to be on medicines for the rest of my life.
“Then I ran into Jim and said sarcastically, “What are you going to do for me?’ These guys take what they’re doing to another level,” he said.
Through sweat, excretion and glands, the toxins leave the body, Higgins said.
The detoxification program might be one of the leading, cutting edge projects in the country, Gulick said.
“They have a better quality of life,” Gulick said. “With the lingering affects of Sept. 11, two years later they have improved their quality of life and extended their quality of life after the fire services.
“Now while they’re in town,” he said, “we’re just enjoying a little bit of the brotherhood with them.”