Grace Under Pressure

On March 28, Grace Perez, the long-time executive director of the Violence Intervention Program, spotted the e-mail in her in-box. She was about to drive the 65 miles from her home in upstate New York to East Harlem, where she had built up a bilingual program for battered women, transforming it from a fledgling shelter into one of the city’s largest domestic-violence organizations. Today, her multimillion-dollar nonprofit serves tens of thousands of Spanish-speaking victims throughout New York City and is known within domestic-violence circles for its creative and effective programming.

The e-mail had come overnight from her board of directors. On March 27, she had been scheduled to meet the six directors of VIP (as it’s known) to discuss her 17-year tenure running the program, but fell ill.

Now, far from the VIP offices in East Harlem, she opened the e-mail’s attachment, a letter dated the day before. “Please be advised that your employment is hereby terminated effective immediately,” it read. According to the letter, the directors were canning their leader for what they described as “your actions in connection with the possible purchase of the building located at 145 East 117th Street”—a building Perez had pursued for months.

Over at the VIP headquarters, the board’s newest addition, Zarah Guzman, delivered the news to about a half-dozen senior managers. (VIP asked the Voice not to divulge the facility’s location—it gives out only a P.O. box to the public for the protection of the battered women it serves.)

“Ms. Perez is no longer with us,” Guzman told the employees. She explained that she did not have the authority to offer details, leaving the staff dumbfounded. The termination, as one high-level VIP officer explains, “seemed so totally unbelievable. Removing Grace from VIP is like taking Marian Wright Edelman out of the Children’s Defense Fund. Grace is VIP and VIP is Grace.”

In a neighborhood known for its vigilant activism, the news about Perez’s firing spread fast. That day, a dozen East Harlem leaders—nonprofit directors and business owners—rushed to VIP headquarters to demand to meet the board. Five days later, activists began circulating a petition that calls not only for Perez’s reinstatement, but also for the directors’ resignations. Within two days, it had attracted 350 signatures. By April 12, a campaign dubbing itself the Community Supporters of VIP had begun.

At the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center, on Lexington Avenue, beneath makeshift placards that read “You are not acting in the best interests of our community,” 35 or so community members discussed what they call “the crisis at VIP.” Mostly players with ties to the agency—former board members and staffers—they explained why they’re rallying around Perez. For them, the outcry has a lot to do with her legacy. But it’s fueled by something else: No one believes the board’s reason for axing Perez. They see the dust-up more like a raid, a hostile takeover of an organization that Perez had cultivated for decades. And they pin the blame for her fall on the only man on the board at an agency that primarily serves women: Kenneth Diaz, who acts as its vice-chairman.

“This community is saying that this board has got to go,” declared Elsa Rios, VIP’s original founder.

“This board has got to go,” offered the crowd in a muffled refrain.

The board has said little about the firing of Perez or its reaction. The Voice‘s repeated calls to each director went largely unanswered. Vivian Selenikas, who was elected the new chairperson last month, refused to discuss the matter at first. “The termination is an internal personnel matter and I’m not going there,” she said. But then, several hours after a Voice reporter tracked down Diaz at his Queens apartment building, she sent a formal statement that ties Perez’s sudden unemployment to the East 117th Street building. “Ms. Perez acted outside the scope of her authority and signed a contract . . . in violation of the Board’s direction,” she said in a prepared statement. “The board had no choice but to terminate her employment.”

It’s an explanation that few seem to accept. For reasons Perez and her backers may never uncover, what should have represented a high point in her career—finding VIP a permanent home—has turned out to be her biggest defeat.

Perez is driving her Toyota through East Harlem to 145 East 117th Street, the building that she had hoped would become the permanent home of the nonprofit organization she’s been involved with for more than 20 years.

She discovered the program in 1986, when it operated out of a closet-sized empty room at the East Harlem Council for Human Services as the sole safe haven for Spanish-speaking women in the city. Then an outreach worker, Perez spent days posting purple stickers that read “Necessita Ayuda? Llamame” on phone booths. She soon climbed the ladder—first, working as a case manager; next, a program coordinator. By 1991, she’d assumed the top post of executive director.


On her watch, VIP has boosted its annual budget from $100,000 to $4 million. Staff and services have multiplied, too. Currently, the agency runs shelters and offers counseling, legal aid, and other assistance to some 750 women and their children in Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx. It also operates the 24-hour Spanish domestic-violence hotline for New York State, fielding roughly 5,000 calls from Brooklyn to Buffalo per year. Meanwhile, its bilingual hotline for the city fields about 13,000.

Many attribute this growth entirely to Perez, who considers VIP a way of life. “VIP is not just a job,” she says. “It’s a commitment and it’s a belief.” Married with four children, Perez worked to expand the organization into the South Bronx, where she grew up. More recently, she’s moved VIP to Queens. She’s the type of executive director who would pull all-nighters to finish grant proposals or search for new funding sources while on vacation. “Grace put much more time and effort into VIP than her personal life,” says Olga Rosado, who headed the VIP board several years ago. “If something needs to be done, she doesn’t sit and wait. She jumps on opportunity. She tackles it.”

Under Perez’s guidance, VIP had thrived, raising enough funds that the organization began to think it could afford the fondest wish of any successful nonprofit: a building of its own.

“There it is,” Perez shouts, pointing to an old brick building on a block of old brick buildings. The four-story residence has a padlocked fence; discarded soda bottles litter the yard. Empty for years, it requires some effort to get past the weathered facade. Still, Perez says, with a wistful sigh, “It has so much potential.”

For years, the organization had saved and, little by little, set aside money for a home. In 2005, facing $5,660 in monthly rent and an expiring December 2008 lease on the horizon, Perez and the board at the time launched a capital campaign. “We were paying a huge amount in rent and we thought, ‘Imagine applying that to a mortgage,’ ” says Melissa Mark Viverito, the district’s city councilwoman and the board chairperson then.

In East Harlem, affordable real estate has become tough to find. But Viverito had heard about the East 117th Street structure through the grapevine; in fact, her brother has power-of-attorney status for the seller, who lives in Puerto Rico. Legally, he could not participate in any sale of the building, but he tipped off his sister to the seller’s desire to unload the property nevertheless. She, in turn, told Perez. When Perez saw
No. 145, she recalls, “I thought, ‘This is perfect.’ ”

But before she could bring the matter before the board, the broker called and relayed to her that an investment group had already made an offer that VIP could not match—$950,000.

Six months later, however, she got a call from Viverito, now a city councilwoman, who had discovered that No. 145 was back on the market. Perez swung into action, calling up the broker, and negotiated a lower price. She convinced the seller to drop to $700,000—a steal compared to East Harlem’s $1 million going rate for similar buildings. By April 2006, Perez had outlined an initial funding scheme for the board. With $300,000 in reserves, she told the members, VIP had enough for a down payment ($140,000) and closing fees ($35,000). She suggested seeking a 20-year mortgage at area banks, as well as grant money for renovations. According to board minutes, Perez was encouraged to pursue the deal.

For the next seven months, Perez did just that. She contacted an architect about renovations. She secured letters of interest for two bank mortgages—first, for $1.2 million; the second, $560,000. She applied for capital funding from the city and, with Viverito’s help, obtained a $500,000 allocation toward the $693,000 rehab costs. She even found a real-estate lawyer to represent VIP during the closing, pro bono.

All along, the board was as enthusiastic about the deal as its executive director, which is reflected in meeting minutes and interviews. As part of the fiscal 2007 budget, it formally approved the purchase. Not once did members voice concerns about the numbers or misgivings about the transaction generally. At least, not until the contract would land in their hands.

On January 11, Perez received the purchase agreement, which she e-mailed to the then board chairperson, Jenny Rivera, a prominent Manhattan civil rights attorney who would resign abruptly weeks later. In the e-mail, Perez informed the chair that she was waiting for instructions from the lawyer. “In the interim,” she wrote, “please review.” The next day, Rivera responded with two letters: “OK.”


Over the ensuing two weeks, however, Perez heard nothing. She sent two e-mails and made 21 phone calls to Rivera, she says, to no avail. As a January 26 deadline neared, she reached out instead to Diaz, the vice-chairman, e-mailing him and asking for help in contacting the chairperson. “The lawyer is expecting a signed contract from us,” she wrote. But there was only silence.

By January 25, she took matters into her own hands. That day, the real estate agent informed Perez that, as she recalls, “the owner wanted to put this building back on the market.” She made one final call to Rivera. And then, on January 26, she could wait no more for word, and signed the contract on her own authority. She cut a check for $140,000. She delivered the documents to the VIP attorney.

Back at her office, she finally got word from Diaz. In an e-mail sent that afternoon, he wrote: “The board has decided not to purchase the 117th Street property.”

To hear the VIP directors tell it, Perez committed an insubordinate act when she signed the contract on the building sale. Although Perez says she was never told to stop pursuing the transaction, the board now claims that her termination “was necessitated due to her having disobeyed a direct order from the Board.” Signing the sale contract without further instructions, the board says, “placed the organization at risk.”

In a brief phone conversation with the Voice, Selenikas, the current chairperson, insists that she and her fellow directors want to buy a building for VIP—just not No. 145. Despite its bargain-basement price, the property would have amounted to a gamble, she maintains. “This property at this time is not the right decision.” Why? “It’s a complicated set of factors,” she replies. “It has to do with the cost of the building and a variety of interconnected financial components.” She adds, “The board didn’t think it was in the best fiduciary interest of VIP.”

Or, as another board member who spoke on condition of anonymity puts it: “We reviewed the numbers and we decided we weren’t ready.”

On January 29, Perez explained her actions in an e-mail to the board. “Since I had no indication that there were any questions about the contract or for that matter second thoughts,” she wrote, “I honestly believed I could sign the contract.” She had signed every other VIP contract, from insurance policies to funder pacts. She had even executed real estate binders for its eight shelters and 15 transitional apartments, according to Perez. Former board members and senior managers confirm that she was the only authorized person who had signed previous contracts for VIP.

“I should have been fired a hundred times over, then,” she says, with sarcasm.

And then there are the numbers. Pious Thomas, the VIP fiscal officer, confirms that board members did not broach financial concerns with him. If they had, he would have stressed that, as he says, “this deal was not going to put VIP in a hole.” By his calculations, the agency had to come up with $377,000 for renovation costs ($193,000) and rent and mortgage payments and other fees ($184,000) during 20 months’ worth of construction. “That’s doable,” he says, since the agency could plug the gap with grants. To this day, he adds, “I have no idea what figures they looked at.”

Neither does anyone else, which has, in part, fueled the neighborhood uproar. When City Councilwoman Viverito heard that the board had passed on the building—and, therefore, chucked her $500,000 allocation—she wanted some answers. Not only was that allocation based on the board’s own promise to seal the deal, but also on the City Council’s rigorous vetting process, including financial audits and other proof of project feasibility.

Viverito wrote a heated February 13 letter to the board: “I am shocked and disappointed by the Board’s cavalier decision.” She asked for a formal explanation, listing nine questions. When she got no reply, she showed up at a board meeting to inquire in person. “It was a pretty unbelievable situation,” she recalls. “None of them would speak at all.”

Eventually, she met with Diaz and three other members at her office, but the exchange only raised more questions. “I didn’t feel comfortable with their information,” she admits. She’d asked who the board had consulted about the deal. Was it an accountant? A private auditor? They wouldn’t say. Still angry, Viverito says, “I think it was lies. They’re pulling this stuff out of the air.”


Today, Perez and friends have become convinced that the building deal was a convenient excuse for the board to give her the boot. For months, she’d been bumping up against the directors, asking for guidance and getting nowhere. In the fall of 2006, she started seeking the help of a professional mediator to broker a truce. “There was a pattern of me making requests to them and them not responding,” she says.

It didn’t take long for word of the trouble to leak out into the neighborhood. Yolanda Sanchez, a veteran activist who has spearheaded the Community Supporters of VIP, heard about the friction in December. When the deal unraveled weeks later, she and her fellow activists called the board’s leadership, urging mediation. When that didn’t work, they targeted Rivera. “We thought, ‘Cut off the head. Save Grace,’ ” Sanchez says. By this time, Rivera, the board chairperson had accepted a post under Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, heading his office’s civil rights bureau. Activists worked their political ties, prodding state officials in the Latino community, trying to bend an ear.

On March 26, just days after their phone calls to Cuomo’s office, Rivera abruptly resigned. She did not return repeated calls from the Voice seeking comment. But 24 hours after she stepped down, the board fired Perez.

In the intervening six weeks, the six directors have come under fire from angry activists—fielding petitions and phone calls, dodging complaints and labels like “runaway board” and “ghost board.” But no one has inspired more suspicion than Kenneth Diaz, the sole male board member at the women’s shelter, who has served on the body over the last eight years. Ironically, he came to the agency at the invitation of Perez, who had wanted to include men in its anti-violence mission. Today, her supporters fear that he’s managed to plot her ousting and take away her organization.

“I’d say Kenneth is behind this,” charges Rosado, the former chairperson, who served alongside Diaz for two years beginning in 2003. At the time, Diaz seemed the quiet yet conniving one, the wizard behind the curtain, the “chair on the side.” Rosado has not joined the Community Supporters of VIP, but she echoes its members. “It’s like Hillary and Bill,” she says. “She was the gal behind the guy and, in reality, she called all the shots. Kenneth is the guy behind the gal.”

Sandra Muñoz, another board member who served from 2002 to 2005 and who has signed on to the campaign, seconds that. “I believe he poisoned the board against Grace.”

Muñoz and others see plenty of red flags. In 2005, they note, Diaz nominated two of his friends to the seven-member board. Then, 12 months later, the new board changed the organization’s bylaws. In the past, the executive director had served on the governing body, with full voting rights. But in 2006, directors lessened Perez’s influence, and kicked her off of the board itself. Both developments happened without her input; she was out on extended medical leaves.

“I believe he has an agenda,” says Haydee Rosario, a longtime VIP volunteer who has applied to be a board member, expressing a common sentiment. Maybe he wants to control that $4 million budget, or maybe he’s looking to employ his friends. “I don’t know what it is,” she acknowledges, “but it’s not good for VIP.”

It’s all harsh criticism for a man whose colleagues outside East Harlem portray him as a do-gooder and devout Christian. “He’s the kind of guy who just likes helping people,” says Juan Martinez, of Progress, Inc., a nonprofit that Diaz and 24 other Puerto Rican leaders founded in 1980. Today, it’s known for reforming the Progress High School for Professional Careers, in Brooklyn, a once failing city school turned educational success story. Diaz wrote the proposal for the school in the 1990s; he can still be found in its halls, volunteering at events, tutoring its students. One source familiar with the place calls him “a blessing.” Sometimes, the source says, “you chat with him and you can see a sense of ministry come through him. I can see his persona and it’s very unique.”

After numerous attempts to speak with him, a Voice reporter visited Diaz at his co-op apartment in a quiet Queens neighborhood, and he agreed to a conversation. In person, he is the antithesis of hostility. A short, squat man who walks with a limp and uses a cane, he is soft-spoken and deliberate, pausing for long stretches at a time, as if to punctuate his points.

So what does he think about the portrait of him as the man out to undo Perez? “I don’t appreciate people trying to see inside my head,” he says flatly. He denies having any designs on VIP, other than to spread its anti-violence mission. As he tells it, he’s simply a man of good intentions trying to live his life as his own missionary mother did. “My mother spent her whole life serving others,” he says, “and that’s the path I’ve tried to follow here.”


Diaz suggests the maelstrom at VIP—the firing of Perez and the nixing of the building deal—stems from the right motivations. “It’s a nonprofit’s dream not to have to worry about where they will operate. It’s the optimum,” he recognizes. But when it came time for the board of directors to deliberate on the contract, he says, “we didn’t think we were in a position to move ahead.”

Asked how he and the rest made that decision, Diaz evades the question. “It’s fair to say that we consulted people who have a knowledge of these things.”

Like whom? “It’s fair to say that these were individuals in whom the board had confidence and on whose conclusions we relied.”

At one point, Diaz implies that he and his colleagues just got cold feet. “The board’s decision wasn’t to kill the project,” he maintains. “The decision was, ‘At this time, with what we know now, we’re not going to move ahead.’ If there had been additional money, maybe the project would have looked more favorable and maybe the board could have made a different decision.” He then offers, “The people on the board are good people with good minds and good intentions, and they feel comfortable with that decision.”

So are you comfortable firing Perez? “I don’t know if I would use the word comfortable. This was a difficult decision.” He sits quietly, staring ahead. Then, he turns and says, “Are we finished yet?”

If VIP’s board thought it was saving itself from risk by not purchasing a building, its subsequent actions have only put it in far more danger. Since Perez got canned on March 28, the board of directors have left VIP without an acting chief. No one is guiding the staff and dealing with the funders on a day-to-day basis. “It’s a pretty untenable situation,” says one senior manager who, along with six colleagues, took the unusual step of writing an April 16 two-page letter to VIP funders. In it, the senior management team expresses a no-confidence vote in the six-person board, asking all of them to step aside.

Some funders are getting leery of the chaos. “We are watching whether our money is being funneled into services,” attests Patricia White of the New York Community Trust, which has allocated $30,000 of a $60,000 grant for Queens services. White says that she found out about Perez’s firing from the community’s petition—not the board. And she hasn’t had formal contact from the board yet. “I’d have to say that in the absence of an executive director we cannot release the rest of this money.” Meanwhile, three internal sources report that at least one other foundation has already frozen a $50,000 payment; a May 2 memorandum from the senior managers to the VIP board confirms this and outlines other contracts that will expire by July 1, at the start of the new fiscal year, thereby jeopardizing various direct staff positions and programs in Manhattan and Queens.

In the April 21 statement, Selenikas suggests that the internal problems stem from the staff itself—and Perez. “Her conduct in the last 21 days, together with the participation of the management team in communicating inaccurate information to VIP’s funders, is injuring the organization and the people it serves.” She tells the Voice that the board is moving forward on its search for a new executive director. “It’s my hope as well as the hope of the board of directors that the organization will be able to look forward to a new executive director and the expansion of programs for the women and children we serve.”

Perez, for her part, isn’t ready to move on yet. Since her firing, she’s tried to drum up support for her reinstatement among domestic-violence colleagues. On a recent Friday afternoon, she met with five advocates at an East Harlem agency and laid out her version of events—how hard she worked to build up VIP; how close she was to giving it a home; how fast it all fell apart.

“So the building and the money are all gone?” one advocate asked in disbelief.

“I can’t say,” Perez replied. “I find it too hard to accept.”

Days later she was talking about “that fantastic building”—how she could salvage that deal. Then she was delivered the bad news: The building was sold in March. “It’s just painful,” Perez says, choking up. “But Mr. Diaz and the board did not have that vision. Only I did.”


Greenwich Pillage

Andrew Berman is standing beneath the iconic arch in Washington Square Park, facing south toward Lower Manhattan. Not so long ago, the leader of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation would come to this spot to take in the downtown skyline. But no more.

“You can see why this building is so hideously ugly,” he says, motioning to a hulking structure called the New York University Kimmel Center. Its curved-glass and yellow-stone facade interrupts the horizon, standing out among nearby brownstones. Berman points to another building rising up behind an old church, dwarfing it in size. That’s the NYU law school, once the site of Edgar Allan Poe’s house, now home to what looks like, in his words, “a grain silo tipped on its side.”

When it comes to development, he adds, “NYU does not have a good track record.”

Which is part of the reason Berman and his 2,000-strong organization have submitted a proposal to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission that would make the South Village a historic district. The district would consist of 800 buildings and 40 blocks, covering those south of West 4th to Broome streets, between La Guardia Place and Seventh Avenue.

Since Italian immigrants settled here in the 1870s, the neighborhood has served as an epicenter for most of New York’s great countercultural movements, from bohemian in the 1920s to Beatnik and folk in the ’50s and ’60s to gay and lesbian in the ’70s. If approved, the area would mark the city’s first tenement- and immigrant-based historic district. Backers are hoping to prevent big and boorish development—luxury condos, glass hotels, and, of course, NYU buildings.

Locals tick off the names of lost buildings as if reciting the names of the dead. The old Circle in the Square Theater is now an uninspired 10-story apartment building. The historic Sullivan Street Playhouse has just been replaced by a glass-fronted condominium tower. The 1920s art-deco parking garage known as the Tunnel Garage has become a hole in the ground. Construction crews are currently laying the foundation for swank housing.

Though South Villagers worry about these developments, they’re especially worried about NYU. Folks still remember an exploratory meeting on the GVSHP proposal four years ago, when Berman outlined existing boundaries. Back then, an NYU official had surprised the crowd and embraced the idea.

“They basically said, ‘These boundaries are fine,’ ” recalls Stu Waldman, who lives on Bedford Street and who attended that 2003 meeting.

While some residents are now accusing the university of backpedaling, a spokesman for NYU, John Beckman, says the university has always had questions about the boundaries.

“This whole kerfuffle deserves to be in the annals of misinterpretation because we all support the same goal,” Beckman said. “I know that as New Yorkers we all like to fight over everything, especially real estate and development, but in this case we all agree [on the need for a district].”

Berman is gearing up for the next hearing on the proposal in June, calling residents and business owners, urging them to sign on to the movement. But he suspects that NYU—and any big developer who has designs on property here—has already gone straight to City Hall. In response,

Beckman says NYU has been in contact with the city: “We wrote a letter to the Landmarks Preservation Commission supporting the district; that’s the extent of it.”


The Conquering Hoard

By the time Steven, a 16-year Washington Heights resident and former Wall Street broker, had climbed the stairs to his apartment—4D—the smell had grown so strong it consumed the hallway. Jingling his keys, Steven, 62, paused and said, as if giving fair warning, “The cats have really torn up the place.”

He opened the door, and a hot, stifling stench came crashing through the corridor.

And that sickly smell—or more aptly, the anonymous complaints about it—is what brought an animal-hoarding interventionist here in the first place. Allison Cardona, the chief hoarding investigator at the Manhattan-based ASPCA, has conducted these types of rescue missions all over New York City lately. In 2005 the ASPCA, as part of the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, helped the city get thousands of dollars in grant money to launch an anti-hoarding program. Administered by the city’s Department of Health, the pilot project pairs Cardona with a social worker who hooks up troubled hoarders with medical care, food stamps, and other services. Cardona, meanwhile, deals with the animals—first, spaying and neutering them; and then, trying to place them in adopted homes.

Over the past 18 months, the program has seen 80 hoarding cases in total, spanning all five boroughs and every ethnic group and income level. Most of those cases (59) involved women. But gender aside, the average animal hoarder fits a pretty typical profile: They tend to be elderly, isolated, and lacking in resources. They are, in short, people like Steven.

“I haven’t had anybody in this apartment since maybe 2002,” he said as he entered his one-bedroom apartment. His wife, Hazel, had to leave their home for a nursing facility in Riverdale three years earlier. These days Steven survives on a $200 monthly allowance from his estranged sister and lives with his cats, all 35 of them, each one now scrambling, screeching, and scurrying around the apartment.

From the looks of it, Steven’s cats had taken over his abode a long time ago. Gone were the cushions on his red sofa, for instance, which was shredded down to its bare wooden frame in multiple places. Ditto for the vinyl blinds, and the padding on the kitchen chairs. Large claw marks dotted every wall; tiny scratch marks decorated every piece of furniture—from tables to bookshelves to kitchen appliances. Dust, inches thick and intertwined with cat hair, blanketed the environment. Flies buzzed and swarmed around the rooms; maggots contaminated the litter boxes.

Cardona, who wore an orange T-shirt with the words ASPCA: We Are Their Voice, walked around the unit, inspecting it with a careful gaze, scrawling notes in a folder. She had heard about Steven from an ASPCA law-enforcement officer who had fielded the anonymous complaints about the foul odor. But when the officer decided that Steven wasn’t abusing his cats (and could therefore not, legally, seize them), he referred the case to Cardona, whose job it is to persuade Steven to lower his animal load voluntarily.

During this particular visit, she was taking an inventory of the orange and black tiger and tabby cats, the ones perched on top of the refrigerator and nestled in the sink and camped inside the sofa. Four tiny kittens frolicked about in an empty Pyrex pan on the floor.

“Is that the nursing cat?” Cardona asked, as Steven reached for one of the rattier animals. He nodded, the grayish tiger cat wiggling violently in his arms.

“I think she might need more food,” Cardona said, feeling the cat’s frame. “She’s too thin to be a nursing cat.”

“Oh, no. She’s OK,” he replied, explaining that he feeds his cats two times a day, which eats up $75 of that monthly allowance.

“I’m telling you that she’s not,” Cardona responded, firmly.

“Yes, she is. She’s healthy. She’ll be all right,” he persisted.

Like most hoarders, Steven didn’t start out that way. In 2000, he stumbled upon three stray kittens outside his building. One year later, he brought in another cat, hit by a car, stranded on the front stoop.

“They all started multiplying,” he explained. Four cats reproduced three times over the ensuing six years, leaving him with nearly three dozen.

Steven thinks of himself as simply a man who loves his animals. “I consider them my companions,” he told Cardona, as a half-dozen or so cats moved in around his feet. “They’re smarter than a lot of people, and they never, ever disappoint,” he said. Besides, now that his wife has left, they’ve given him a reason to get up in the morning. “I would have cracked up if I didn’t have something to get me going. They forced me to clean up their mess.”

Still, he confided, it’s a lot of work. In recent months, his cats have knocked over candles, turned on the gas stove, and gotten into the cabinets. One day last summer, they turned on the faucet and flooded his entire apartment.

“I’m going insane,” he told Cardona. “This whole place is not amenable to a good life.”

Cardona made an appointment to return in a week to have all the cats spayed and neutered; the next step would be adoption. As he walked her out of the apartment, Steven agreed to give up his companions, but said he’d like to hold on to three of them.

It’s a lucky number, he said.


Life Support

More than five years have passed since John Feal arrived in lower Manhattan on the day after the September 11 terrorist attacks to help in the recovery effort and, as he drives toward ground zero, he’s starting to sweat.

Happens every time he returns to the intersection of Chambers and West streets, just blocks from where the towers fell and where he worked as a demolition supervisor for five days until a falling eight-ton steel beam crushed his left foot.

“Boy, am I hot!” he shouts.

“That’s funny. I’m cold,” says Chris Baumann, a disabled NYPD officer who suffered severe injuries as a result of the attacks. He grips his thighs as Feal drives past the post where Baumann worked as a traffic cop; the street corner where he heard the first plane hit; the sidewalk where he landed after getting tossed half a block when the debris came crashing down. The blow left him with smashed discs in his spine, as well as damaged nerves in his right leg and left arm. His superiors refused to let him return to the WTC site after 24 hours on the job.

Feal and Baumann met in 2002 at a now defunct 9/11 support group. Feal, 40, has had surgery on his foot more than two dozen times and still walks with a lopsided gait. Baumann suffers a host of permanent ailments. He often forgets the names of his two sons, ages 13 and 11, or the phone numbers of his relatives, or the directions to his Lindenhurst, Long Island, home. Blinded by the caustic dust for months after 9/11, he still cannot read or drive at night. His doctors keep extracting tiny threads of fiberglass from his eyelids. And then there are the pre-cancerous tumors in his lungs that his doctors link to the WTC toxins. His breathing capacity now equals that of a 60-year-old; he is 44.

“It’s always so emotional for us to come here,” Feal says.

The two are barreling through Manhattan streets in Feal’s Ford Expedition, which features, in big letters on the rear window:

“9-11-01 First Responder Now Advocate. Be a Hero and a Help.”

It’s the mobile unit of the Feal Good Foundation, which Feal started last fall by convincing businesses to donate goods to ailing ground zero workers—an extended toilet seat for someone with cancer, say, or a roof for someone with post-traumatic stress disorder. Recently, he’s raised $12,000 from everyday folks as well as Hollywood types like Michael Moore (donation: $1,000 in children’s toys plus undisclosed dollars) and Michael Shamberg, who produced the blockbuster
World Trade Center (donation: $500).

Today, Feal and Baumann are heading to see Terry Graves, who volunteered for the Red Cross after 9/11 and who has languished on her sofa for the last three years, paralyzed by depression. They’ve packed the Ford with boxes of food—cans of tuna and pineapple, cartons of pasta and cereal. They’ve cut a check for $200. And now, after leaving lower Manhattan, they’re speeding up the West Side Highway bound for Inwood, where Graves has lived since 1999. The two are joined by Baumann’s wife of 20 years, Anne Marie, who serves on the group’s board and who wears a red T-shirt with a heart that reads Feal Good Foundation.

“I’ll stay in the car,” her husband says, staring at their destination on West 207th Street.

“No, you can do this,” Anne Marie replies, rubbing his shoulders and coaxing him from the car. Unlike Feal, who has visited Manhattan two dozen times for 9/11 events, Baumann has ventured into the city only twice since the attacks. He, too, spent several years holed up in his home.

“Oh, Chris! You made it out of the house,” exclaims Graves, who is 46 and bespectacled and plainly relieved to meet her visitors. She gives Baumann a hug, then announces that she, too, left her tiny one-bedroom apartment just yesterday.

“I walked on Third Avenue for six blocks by myself,” she says.

Before September 11, Graves worked as a word processor for Deutsche Bank, whose downtown headquarters is so contaminated by the toxic dust that it has remained closed, shrouded in netting. Recently the city and state began demolishing the building, floor by floor. On 9/11, Graves had the afternoon shift, so she didn’t witness the attacks. But she spent four months around the pile, traipsing from the nearby Red Cross relief center to Tent City and back, offering herself as a Spanish interpreter. Not long after her volunteer work, she started experiencing panic attacks whenever she went downtown. City life terrified her—the tall skyscrapers, the roaring subways, the countless backpacks. By early 2004, she couldn’t leave her house. She stayed on the sofa until February of this year, when she discovered Feal’s foundation. Anne Marie hooked her up with the Bellevue Hospital WTC program, which monitors citizens affected by 9/11. Doctors there have since diagnosed her with depression and PTSD.

“Listen,” Feal says, “you’d better get your ass in gear, because you will have to leave this apartment again.” He waves a T-shirt with a decal of the Statue of Liberty driving a ’57 Chevy, underneath the words Doo-Wop Makes You “Feal Good.” It’s a reference to his first benefit concert for 9/11 workers and volunteers, planned for July 21.

“You need to get out and function and go to this concert,” he says. “There are other people out there and you need to hear their stories.”

Graves lowers her head. “Don’t you get the sense that people want 9/11 to go away?”

“Chris knows that, don’t you?” Anne Marie interjects, trying to coax a silent Baumann. He sits in a rocking chair, zoned out. His wife again prompts him: “Chris, do you get support from your family?”

Baumann shakes his head and says: “I come from a family of cops, and they all tell me, ‘Get over it.’ ”

But there are some things you cannot get over, he has said. Like the sound of bodies falling from the towers. The sight of people bleeding from open wounds. Or the woman whose right arm was slit from her shoulder to her wrist. Or that other woman who was severed in half.

“All my friends at the precinct stopped talking to me,” Baumann continues. “They don’t want to hear about 9/11.”

Graves then turns to him. “Did you try to off yourself?”


“So did I,” she confides. “It sucks.”

After an hour of conversation—about medications, about the responders who need lung and kidney and bone marrow transplants, about the media outlets that never cover the dying responders—Baumann rubs his face. It’s a signal to go home.

The four exchange hugs. Then, as the others leave, Graves says, with a sigh: “You don’t know how fantastic that was. Finally, I don’t feel like such a freak.”


City Hall Park Throws Off Its Chains

On a snowy Tuesday in late February, Skip Blumberg stood outside the five-foot-tall metal fence that surrounds City Hall Park, the green oasis nestled downtown between Broadway, Chambers, and Centre streets. Blumberg was peering through padlocked gates at empty chess tables on the other side. Not so long ago, this 27-year resident of lower Manhattan and the indefatigable leader of the Friends of City Hall Park would watch his neighbors play at those tables. Or kiss under the cherry trees. Or stroll along the pathway toward City Hall. Now the only clue that the northern part of this lush and historic park was ever enjoyed by the public is an almost illegible sign posted on the lawn. It reads: “Please enjoy this natural area.”

“That sign survived 9/11,” said Blumberg, who is 62 and bearded and exceedingly spry, motioning toward the knee-high placard sticking out of the grass.

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, which ushered in an era of tightened security, much of City Hall Park has remained closed to the public, its manicured gardens hidden behind heavily sealed gates. In its 220 years, the park has been a favorite stomping ground for New Yorkers—the site of everything from public executions to colonial protests to Yankees ticker-tape parades. But over the past five years, those eager to convene at City Hall Park couldn’t get too far past the padlocks and chains. That is about to change, thanks largely to Blumberg and his 2000-strong Friends organization.

The city has reached an agreement with the citizens group to open up park areas that were shuttered post-9/11, ostensibly for security. While a protective fence equipped with cameras will remain near City Hall, the northern part of the park—from behind the municipal building to Chambers Street—will be opened all day, every day, except when a nearby school has recess. Under a plan agreed to on February 13, the city will unlock the five gates that have kept the public off these lawns and pathways. Officials have also agreed to set up benches and other amenities in the Centre Street plaza. The agreement sets an opening date for “sometime in July.”

Folks downtown credit Mayor Michael Bloomberg for finally reversing what they consider an illegal policy, but they all-out praise Blumberg. When officials relayed the news to the neighborhood last month during a Community Board One meeting at Millennium High School, on Broad Street, the crowd erupted in applause. “Thanks for being a pain in the neck, Skip,” shouted one community board member. “Congratulations, Skip,” yelled another, “it’s been a real labor of love!”

Outside that meeting, Pip Wurmfeld, a Friends of City Hall Park member, lauded the man best known as the “maven” of City Hall Park. “Skip has been such a one-man band for so long,” she said. Her husband Sandy nodded, and added, “He was adamant at getting City Hall Park open.”

Blumberg, who lives in an apartment building across from the park, has fought to keep City Hall Park open twice now. In 1999, while renovating the once-haggard space, then Mayor Rudy Giuliani erected that inhospitable fence, much to folks’ dismay. Blumberg saw that as an affront—”We were dealt out,” is how he put it, since residents who had long tended to the park couldn’t use it anymore. It took the Friends months to convince Giuliani to take down the chains around lawns and post that barely legible sign.

Then came 9/11, and all gates closed. In January 2002, Bloomberg, who had promised as a candidate to re-open the park, freed up only the southern side. Months turned into years, and Blumberg wondered if security wasn’t a pretense to permanently seize public parkland. He built a network of 2000 downtown residents, employees, and businesses to push the mayor to reverse course. In December 2005, the activist ran into the mayor during a park event.

“Would you re-open City Hall Park?” he asked.

Bloomberg, as Blumberg recalls the exchange, replied: “I’ll think about it.”

Nothing happened for months, despite 100 e-mails to the mayor and the help of local politicians. Then a lower Manhattan attorney named Derek Adler informed Blumberg of a state law that forbids a municipality from taking a public park without permission from the New York State legislature. Adler wrote to Bloomberg last September and explained that his administration was, as the legal term goes, “alienating public parkland.” He threatened to sue.

“He must have known we were right,” Adler recalled.

Two months later, Blumberg and four Friends met with city officials. They wanted the administration to return City Hall Park to pre-9/11 conditions, including freeing up the plaza in front of City Hall, which looks like a fortified parking lot. Officials touted the need for security. Blumberg kept on pushing.

First, he suggested building a new City Hall outside the park—”Nobody took that seriously,” he said. The city proposed installing metal detectors at the gates—”That was anathema,” he countered. Eventually, Blumberg and Friends agreed to go along with the protective fence, giving up three of the park’s eight acres. In return, they gained the reopening of the northern lawns, pathways, and the new amenities, such as portable cafe tables and chairs. (Bill Castro, the Manhattan parks commissioner who shepherded the agreement, could not be reached for comment.)

As Blumberg walked along the fence on Chambers Street—pointing out the burial spots from when City Hall Park served as the city’s first potter’s field—he reflected on his five-year fight. “This is a story about responsibility,” he said, earnestly. He felt obliged to act after what he calls “Giuliani’s betrayal”—as an activist, he’d helped the former mayor secure roughly $2 million to renovate part of the park, only to see it closed after 9/11. (The total cost of renovating the whole park is estimated at least $12 million.)”

“This isn’t over yet,” Blumberg insisted. “Not until the gates are finally opened.” Not until he can see his neighbors back at those chess tables or on those lawns, next to that small sign.

“I cannot wait,” he said, grinning widely.


While Schumer Slept

Chuck Schumer was late.

It was September 8, 2006, three days before the fifth anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, and the usual faces of New York’s congressional delegation had gathered yet again for a hearing to attract attention to the “living victims” of September 11—the rescue and recovery workers, residents, students, and office employees who have gotten sick from the toxic aftermath of the World Trade Center collapse.

There was Hillary Clinton, the state’s junior senator and future 2008 Democratic presidential candidate, who now owns 9-11 environmental health issues in the way the former mayor Rudy Giuliani owned crime. Next to her sat Carolyn Maloney, the congresswoman representing midtown Manhattan, whose office had organized Capitol Hill trips and ground zero rallies to call attention to the cause. Farther down sat Vito Fossella, of Staten Island, a Republican House member who had pointedly attacked the leader of his own party, President Bush, for ignoring the public-health crisis. Next to him sat Jerrold Nadler, lower Manhattan’s longtime congressman, who had led the original battle with the Environmental Protection Agency over its failure to clean up the trade center dust.

It wasn’t until 90 minutes into the hearing that New York’s senior senator hurried up the aisle, his entourage in tow. Moments later, on the dais, Schumer joined the conversation with brief yet potent comments on the issue.

“I wanted to come by,” Schumer said, “to tell this panel in particular, but everybody here, that I will join in the effort to do everything we can to see that what happened to those who helped early on, but show symptoms of illnesses that came from that help years later, are treated every bit as fairly as those who were hurt on that terrible day.”

The dozens of labor representatives, residents, ground zero workers, and 9-11 activists in the room delighted in hearing Schumer speak out. Such words had been spoken many times before, but on this day carried the weight that only comes when delivered by a senior U.S. senator.

No one could ignore the fact of Schumer’s presence—not the activists, nor the ground zero workers, nor his colleagues in Congress. Many of them were counting his lateness to the cause in years, not in minutes. But those who had yearned since day one to hear his voice couldn’t help but wonder why Schumer had failed for nearly five years to heed their appeals for help—and why, at long last, he’d heard them now.

Charles Schumer, in his eighth year as the state’s senior senator and now Vice Chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus—making him the third most powerful Democrat in Washington—prides himself on serving the needs of every citizen of New York State, all 19 million of them. Over the past 34 years, from the three terms in the state assembly to the 18 years in the House of Representatives to the two terms in the Senate, he has worked hard and delivered fast for New Yorkers. And they have rewarded him for it—as evidenced most recently by his record 71-percent re-election win in 2004.

By all measures, Schumer has proven to be a good Democrat, always on the right side of Democratic party issues like gun control, crime, and judicial selections. Recently, as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the 2006 elections, he became the savior of his party after steering it to power in that chamber. Through it all, he has particularly devoted his career to doing right by his middle-class constituents, as epitomized in his new book, Positively American, by the fictional Joe and Eileen Bailey, of Long Island. He writes: “They cared that I was out there fighting for and delivering on issues that mattered to them. That was my job.”

So what happens when a good Democrat is suddenly faced with a not-so-good issue—an issue created by the most calamitous event ever to have occurred in his home state? An issue that hinges on constituents made ill by their exposure to the toxic dust cloud that hung over lower Manhattan and blanketed area skyscrapers in the wake of the terrorist attacks? An issue that represents one of the most complicated and risky to arise out of the catastrophic events of September 11?

From VITO VALENTI, ground zero volunteer, disabled labor representativ (January 5, 2006):

From CHARLES SCHUMER U.S. Senator, New York (February 1, 2006):

It has taken five years for a broad consensus to emerge on the fact that the dust that coated lower Manhattan after 9-11 has made people seriously ill. Now, no one denies the truth any longer—as borne out by a September 2006 Mount Sinai Medical Center study showing that 70 percent of 9,500 responders have respiratory illnesses. No one disputes the World Trade Center Health Registry’s record of more than 71,000 residents, office employees, students, and ground zero workers with 9-11–related symptoms. No one argues with the February 2006 legal decision finding that the EPA misled New Yorkers about the air quality downtown.


What amounted to an orphan issue for years, pressed by a tiny handful of federal lawmakers, has become a popular crusade in the last 12 months. By 2006, as reports surfaced about the deaths of sick first responders, the political tide had finally turned. Indeed, just last week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled his administration’s 83-page report on the 9-11 health crisis, calling for increased
federal funding and other measures.

But before then, the 9-11 environmental health issues served as a test for good Democrats like Schumer. And for his constituents, especially those who appealed to his offices, it was a test he failed.

To be sure, in the first five years that followed the attacks, Schumer whipped into action on behalf of the state and its victims. Immediately afterward, he became the point person for $20 billion in emergency aid from the federal government. He fought for those billions on Capitol Hill, negotiating with Bush budget directors and haranguing Senate appropriators. While he partnered with Senator Clinton to get this money, no one disputes that Schumer drove the package.

That package funded a host of valuable benefits for constituents: loans for downtown businesses, bonds for construction projects, and unemployment benefits for people who lost jobs. It also laid the groundwork for the main 9-11 health initiatives today. The first $177 million for the World Trade Center medical-monitoring programs came from those funds. So did money for such environmental work as the $477 million to remove toxic debris from the trade center site and the $20 million to rid downtown public schools of toxic dust.

“From day one,” says Risa Heller, the senator’s spokesperson, “Senator Schumer has been an aggressive and effective advocate for delivering billions of dollars of aid to rebuild ground zero and fund the framework for all existing health programs related to the tragedy of 9-11.”

Through Heller, Schumer parried about a dozen requests for an interview for this article, beginning the first week of January, before finally making himself available for comment just hours before deadline last week. In an eight-minute phone conversation, the senior senator disputed the argument that he has been late to the cause. Though he first publicly voiced his desire to “join the effort” last fall, he explains, “Those words are not to be interpreted as me saying I wasn’t involved before. I’ve been part of these efforts from the get-go, and that’s how I see my record.” Declining to speak for attribution, his aides have also defended their boss’s record on 9-11 environmental health issues and expressed their belief that the thrust of the article is baseless. They provided a Voice reporter with documentation detailing that record—which included press releases, congressional letters, and Senate speeches—but a close reading of it shows Schumer said and did little on the health problems of the 9-11 fallout until the latter half of 2005. Much of the materials illustrated his work on the overall $20 billion government aid package, such as his advocacy in the spring of 2002 for money to reimburse New York hospitals and to give rental relief to downtown residents.

Chuck Schumer
photo: AP/Wideworld

To many of his constituents—both leaders of advocacy groups and individuals seeking help with health problems—Schumer’s fight for those billions wasn’t enough. Advocates pushing for public attention to the 9-11 environmental health cause—school parents, residents, office employees, and ground zero workers—looked to Schumer in those early days for assistance. They con
tacted his offices, seeking the sort of leadership that comes from a senior senator. But they got little or no response.

“When it comes to people we represent, he has been nowhere,” says Kimberly Flynn, the co-coordinator of 9-11 Environmental Action, since 2002 the main advocacy group for downtown residents, employees, students, and parents, with a 400-person mailing list.

“I don’t remember him showing up much,” adds Suzanne Mattei, head of the New York City Sierra Club and secretary of Unsung Heroes Helping Heroes, a 9-11 response-and-recovery workers’ organization with 18,000 members nationwide. “I guess that speaks for itself.”

In Schumer’s absence, advocates turned to his junior colleague, who demonstrated a far greater willingness to champion their cause. Almost from the start, Hillary Clinton—then just nine months into her first term—began carving out a leadership role on 9-11 environmental health issues. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, she recognized publicly that recovery workers were falling ill. In the months and years that followed, she did the same with everyone who lived and worked near the site. As unpopular as it was then, she asserted repeatedly that the government had made mistakes that could lead to lasting illnesses.


By contrast, during that time Schumer said and did nearly nothing. He rarely spoke about
the environmental hazards in and around the rubble of debris now known as “The Pile.” For
years, he said nothing about the putrid air, or the noxious dust, or the people getting sick. It wasn’t until 2006—mostly since that congressional hearing—that Schumer became a consistent and visible player on the front lines of this battle.

Schumer and his defenders—who include current and former aides, as well as New York and Capitol Hill political insiders familiar with his 9-11 work—strenuously deny any lapse on his part or any evolution in his thinking over the last five years on these issues: “I’ve been involved in every single issue dealing with the health problems from the beginning,” he says. The senior senator says he chose to let Clinton lead on all aspects of 9-11 environmental health, a logical and appropriate division of labor because she sits on two key Senate committees—Environment and Public Works, which oversees the EPA; and Health, Labor, Education, and Pensions, which oversees health care. The committees gave her an entrée into the health impacts of 9-11 fallout, enabling her to use hearings and procedures to move initiatives. Once Clinton made the cause a top priority, they say, Schumer deferred to her. He did his duty as a good Democrat, signing her bills and supporting her measures.

Given her committee assignments, says one Schumer aide, “It made sense for Senator Clinton to take the lead.” Basil Smikle, Clinton’s former deputy state director turned political consultant, seconds that: “A lot of her leadership had to do with the fact that she’s on the right committees.”

Schumer, who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, likens Clinton’s leadership on 9-11 environmental health issues to his own historical leadership on judicial appointments. “It would be silly to write an article saying, ‘Hillary is absent on judicial selections,’ just because I take the lead on that issue,” he says, “and the same is true here.” Asked if he thought his constituents would have understood this division of labor, he replies, “I don’t know. This is the first I’ve heard of any complaints. It’s the first I’ve heard that I haven’t been active and involved in helping to move these issues forward.” Division of labor arguments don’t account for unexpected consequences of emergencies, though, and when asked if the toxic aftermath of the terrorist attacks wouldn’t have required both senators’ leadership, he says, “I think the selection of Supreme Court justices are also important events.”

Advocates welcome Schumer’s current support, but still wonder why, early on, he wouldn’t do what he’s doing now: help Clinton and the other congressional forces champion this cause. These activists believe that having two powerful senators, united on the Senate floor and behind closed doors, would have made the difference in getting faster and more thorough aid to ailing responders and others exposed to the toxins.

On that issue they find agreement—at least privately—among Capitol Hill insiders privy to the backroom efforts to help the 9-11 living victims. One congressional source who spoke on the condition of anonymity puts it this way: “The issue has needed the help of both senators throughout this entire unfortunate exercise. One powerful senator is good, but two powerful senators are even better.”

On September 13, 2001 ,
Schumer and Clinton sat with President Bush in the Oval Office to argue for separate aid for a city ravaged by the terrorist attacks of two days before. Bush asked how much the city needed to recover and rebuild.

“Twenty billion dollars,” Schumer said flatly.

“You’ve got it,” the president replied.

It stands as a classic Schumer moment, nailing down a federal commitment for his home state. Fans and foes alike consider it his finest hour. For months afterward, he collaborated with his junior colleague to bring that $20 billion home—working with her as a team to make it happen. Every day, Schumer staffers gave updates on efforts their boss undertook—creating the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, or assisting victims’ families in finding remains.

But by late September, Schumer’s office was getting calls from other families as well. Parents whose children attended Stuyvesant High School were frantically seeking out elected officials. The city’s Department of Education planned to reopen the prestigious high school, blocks from ground zero, assuring parents it had spent $1 million cleaning up the toxic dust. Yet many believed the conditions in lower Manhattan weren’t safe. Not only were the acrid fires still smoldering on the pile, but also the city had placed a 24-hour barge on a pier beside the school, where trucks dumped debris within feet of kids’ classrooms.


The 6,000-strong Stuyvesant High School Parents’ Association formed an outreach com
mittee. About two dozen members thought to call their dogged representative, Nadler, and
their celebrity senator, Clinton. But most opted to call Schumer first. He seemed the perfect
ally—not just because of his senior status, but also because of his personal stake in the 9-11 fallout: His daughter Jessica was a senior at Stuyvesant.

So, says Jenna Orkin, a veteran 9-11 activist whose son was a 2002 classmate of Jessica, “There was hope of winning Schumer over to fight the good fight for the kids.”

Orkin reached out to Schumer’s offices on her own, while 20 or so Parents’ Association representatives tried to contact him, repeatedly, in New York and D.C. They called; they e-mailed. Several of them remember getting his aides on the phone. We need to move that barge, they implored. We need Schumer to help convince the city to do it.

“He did nothing,” says Orkin, a co-founder of the Concerned Stuyvesant Community. “It was some form of buck-passing.”

Adds another parent who called and visited his offices at the time, and who asked for anonymity for fear of recriminations from the senator: “Schumer did not respond. We were given the runaround continuously.”

The Stuyvesant situation presented a dilemma for Schumer. On the one hand, his constituents were asking for help. On the other hand, he was willing to return his daughter to a building yards from the trade center site. Stuyvesant parents believed that would prompt him to listen to their concerns that their kids were at risk of getting sick from the contamination, but his aides suggest otherwise.

Indeed, when pressed for a broad explanation of Schumer’s lack of leadership on the 9-11 environmental health issues—a failing they repeatedly deny in general terms—the senator’s spokesperson turned the focus of the discussion to the Stuyvesant situation.

“When it came to the issue of students,” said Heller, his spokesperson, via e-mail, “the senator deferred to the effective leadership of his colleagues at the request of his family.” During the interview, Schumer elaborated on that statement, explaining his daughter had asked him to not get involved in the debate over the school. The reason for Jessica’s request isn’t known, but the senator suggests that like many of her classmates, she struggled with the trauma of witnessing the 9-11 attacks. “My daughter did not want me to get involved, and that’s personal,” he says. “She was there that day and she vacated that school and she did not want me involved in this issue.” He points out that Stuyvesant parents did get help from other federal lawmakers, such as Nadler and Clinton. “If no one else was involved, fine, I could understand the criticism,” he says, “but there were forceful advocates there, and on certain issues that hit close to home, if one of your family members says to you, ‘Please don’t get involved,’ I’d think that people would be able to respect that.”

In the end, Nadler and Clinton weren’t forceful enough to convince the city to move the barge, which remained next to Stuyvesant until May 2002. By then, students and teachers were already reporting bloody noses, rashes, and respiratory infections that many believed were the result of 9-11 toxic exposure.

Through it all, Schumer kept silent. When asked if he ever explained that silence to parents with growing concerns about their children’s health, he replies, “That’s not the point.” He adds: “I may not have wanted to tell them because I may have wanted to keep my daughter’s situation private.”

Those comments to The Village Voice represented the first specific acknowledgement by Schumer and his office that he declined to involve himself directly in constituent matters related to 9-11 environmental health issues. When told that other 9-11 health advocates—residents, office employees, and ground zero workers—have also said they reached out to his offices over the years and got no response, Schumer replies, “I can be criticized for many things, but a lack of response isn’t one of them.” He adds: “If you have their names, we’ll try to find out what happened. We always try to be very responsive.”

Schumer’s daughter clearly complicated these issues for him—but so did his wife, Iris Weinshall, who headed the city’s Department of Transportation at the time of the attacks, and continues in that role today. As the agency’s commissioner, she served as a high-level official in the administration of then mayor Giuliani—who denied any problems with air quality in lower Manhattan. Just as parents appealed to Schumer, they lobbied Giuliani officials like Weinshall. One Parents’ Association representative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, remembers the commissioner returning the association’s phone calls in early October. “She said, ‘Everything is fine,’ ” the representative recalls, “‘Just trust the government.’ ”


Parents have long suspected privately that Schumer’s silence on these issues stemmed in part from an unwillingness to contradict his wife’s implicit stance in her position with the Giuliani administration—something Schumer’s aides vigorously deny. Says Heller, flatly: “That claim is categorically ridiculous.”

Weinshall (through a spokesperson) declined several requests for comment, except to say that she did not have jurisdiction over the barge and cleanup operations. Weinshall referred a Voice reporter back to Schumer’s office for further clarification of his family’s request; Schumer, for his part, told the Voice, “My position had zero to do with my wife’s position.”

Still, he essentially echoed the sentiment that all was fine on October 9, 2001, the day Stuyvesant called back its 3,000 students. On that morning, Schumer escorted his daughter to the high school on West Street, passing the police patrols and the National Guard troops, passing the reporters at the front doors. When asked if he was worried about air quality, he shook his head.

“They’ve done all the testing,” Schumer told reporters. “I know they’ve made it safe.”

In retrospect, Schumer set his course on the environmental health front that day. Having returned his daughter downtown, he couldn’t easily turn around and speak out about the toxins making other people sick. Still, residents and office employees hoped he would. That same month, they were contacting his Manhattan and D.C. offices, to no avail. Residents in Battery Park City had formed an ad hoc coalition, calling up politicians. Employees in buildings on Barclay, Broadway, and Liberty streets called labor groups, which did the same. They wanted officials to challenge the EPA’s false assurances about the conditions near ground zero. Why were they suffering from the same ailments as those toiling on the pile? Was that dust safe? What about that plume?

Craig Hall, of the World Trade Center Residents Coalition, recalls his group contacting Schumer’s offices, sending e-mails via his office website, making several phone calls. So do two labor activists who collaborated with the residents. “The sense was his office wasn’t interested in getting involved,” Hall says. “It wasn’t his priority.”

Schumer’s true priority, it seemed, was rebuilding lower Manhattan. At the time, Schumer, like most political and business elites, feared the city’s economy would plummet. Get Wall Street up and running! Open businesses! Redevelop the site! That was the official line, and Schumer said and did all he could to live up to it. He convinced Bush officials to allow some of those billions of dollars in aid to upgrade transportation lines. He created the tax-friendly Liberty Zone. He traveled to business gatherings, presenting what he called a “grand plan” for replacing the twin towers. Often, he told people his number one job was to keep downtown afloat.”Chuck took it as his mission to make sure the economy didn’t collapse,” confirms one Capitol Hill source close to Schumer familiar with his 9-11 work.

The city’s business and Wall Street leaders represent important Schumer constituents, and he rose to power with help from many of them. In 1998, when he challenged Republican Alfonse D’Amato for his current seat, Wall Street firms donated $1.4 million to his campaign—more than any other U.S. senator. In 2002, they gave about $1.3 million; in 2004, the same. A prolific fundraiser, Schumer boasts major annual support from downtown corporations like Cantor Fitzgerald ($46,250 in 2004), Goldman Sachs ($43,790), Morgan Stanley ($40,500), and Newmark Knight Frank Real Estate ($32,200).

Wall Street, like Schumer, downplayed all talk of the dust’s dangers at first. When the
Daily News ran its first front-page story detailing the toxic mess in October 2001, the Partnership for New York City fired off a letter decrying the “sick Halloween prank.” Leaders wanted to prevent what Kathryn Wylde, the president of the partnership, now calls “a giant exodus from lower Manhattan.”

“We believed there were obvious exaggerations about hazards of the 9-11 dust cloud,” she says, referring to the Daily News article. “It seemed scare-mongering at a time when we were trying to lure businesses back.”

That attitude presented yet another conflict for the senator. “Schumer was the guy saying to people, ‘Please invest your millions in lower Manhattan,’ ” says the Capitol Hill source, who is friendly to Schumer, “and when you’re that guy, you can’t also put out press releases saying, ‘Oh, my God. Thousands have asbestosis from all the toxins.’ ”


If Schumer faced competing loyalties, his junior colleague found herself in a different position. A new senator, Clinton had yet to gain the trust of New Yorkers, who considered her an outsider. Her relationship with the city’s cops and firefighters—the 9-11 first responders—was especially strained. “She had to prove herself as a bona fide New Yorker,” says Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran political consultant. It helped that she harbored a passion for environmental health issues dating back to her days as first lady.

When Clinton visited ground zero within 24 hours of the attacks, she noticed the toxic stew. “I could not see anything,” she has often said of that visit, “but I could smell it. I could taste it. I could literally feel it.” Clinton and her staff soon made routine trips there, keeping tabs on how many recovery workers were suffering from what ailments. She had her aides follow up with labor and resident groups grappling with the ripple effects. By October, she had written to then EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman—who had assured New Yorkers in a now infamous statement on September 18, 2001, that conditions were “safe”—and urged her agency to do more to “adequately protect human health and the environment in lower Manhattan.” By November, she had drafted a bill to provide health tracking for recovery workers, which paved the way for the current WTC monitoring programs.

Clinton’s staff requested that Schumer become a co-sponsor of that bill. “Schumer was happy to support the effort,” says Ann O’Leary, Clinton’s legislative director in D.C. from 2001 to 2003. “He put his name on it.” He lent his name again one month later, when Clinton inserted her measure into an appropriations bill, thus securing the first $12 million for the WTC programs. He would do so a third time, in July 2002, co-sponsoring her provision for another $90 million.

Distinguishing among all the 9-11 living victims, Schumer has always appeared more attuned to the rescue and recovery workers than to the downtown community. It didn’t take a lot to see that these workers, enveloped in a plume without proper equipment, were at risk. While those who lived and worked near the pile went undiagnosed and unnoticed, no one could deny what was happening to the “heroes of 9-11.”

Schumer’s aides say the specter of lung illnesses among the rescue and recovery workers had become so apparent that their boss led the charge to create the Captive Insurance Fund. That’s the $1 billion set aside to cover liability for New York City and the construction firms responsible for the cleanup—the same money they’re now using to fight 8,500-plus lawsuits filed by ailing workers. In 2002, Schumer aides were meeting with company and city representatives to discuss workers’ future injury claims. Eventually, the senator inserted the liability cap into an airline bailout bill.

The fund was meant to benefit the city as a whole—including those who would fail to protect workers from the toxic aftereffects—yet Schumer’s people now paint it as a sign of his concern for the rescue and recovery workers. Says one former aide who attended those 2002 meetings, “Chuck’s point has always been, ‘Take care of the workers.’ ”

But just how willing Schumer was to fight for their health needs goes to the heart of his dilemma. No one argues that Schumer did not back Clinton’s attempt to appropriate another $90 million for the WTC programs—indeed, he voted for it. And some advocates say they never questioned Schumer’s commitment to their cause. Explains Peter Gorman, the president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, “I never doubted for a second that he wasn’t lockstep in line with Clinton.” Tom Scotto, the past president of the Detectives’ Endowment Association, who asked Clinton to file her health-tracking bill, adds, “Chuck is a big supporter of law enforcement, so why would he not be helpful to 9-11 responders? I would find that impossible to believe.”

But sources familiar with the effort to win those millions say the senior senator barely surfaced in what would become a grueling, 20-month battle to help those afflicted with illnesses connected to the cloud of dust. By September 2002, the Bush administration had failed to release the $90 million, setting off a behind-the-scenes appropriations game. In the ensuing months, Clinton wrote letters to the EPA’s Whitman and called Bush’s then chief of staff, Andrew Card, urging them to back the programs. She worked with Senate appropriators to insert the money into bills—first in late 2002; again in early 2003. Her office, along with the Congressional offices of Maloney and Nadler, brought labor leaders to D.C. Maloney even convinced House colleagues to give up their passes to the 2003 State of the Union address so ground zero workers could sit in the gallery, a reminder of the forgotten heroes. Finally, in June 2003, the money arrived— without Schumer.


“In all the negotiations,” says one labor representative who participated in the lobbying fight for the WTC funds, “Schumer was just absent.”

“He didn’t do the work,” adds a former delegate tied to the United Firefighters Association who got involved in the effort. “It was all Clinton.”

Even sources close to Clinton confirm as much. Attests O’Leary, “I can say it wasn’t his battle and he didn’t go out of his way to help. It’s accurate to say he was absent, yes.”

If Schumer was missing in action on these early efforts to aid ground zero workers, his absence was even more conspicuous to those who worked and lived downtown. In February 2002, Clinton used her seat on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works to highlight the 9-11 health issues—holding a hearing in Manhattan, grilling government officials on the cleanup. By then, Nadler had become the loudest champion of the cause—hosting Wall Street forums attracting hundreds of people made ill by the toxins, dogging the EPA about its inadequate testing. At the hearing, the congressman requested that Clinton ask some tough questions to city and federal officials, putting pressure on the EPA. Within months, the two stood together as the agency announced it would test for toxic dust inside skyscrapers.

Schumer could not have held this hearing; he wasn’t on the key committee. But he could have participated in it, and didn’t. Nor did he sign on to Clinton’s three letters to Whitman at that time about the toxic aftereffects.

The only public statement Schumer made on the 9-11 health fallout came in February 2002, the day after Clinton’s hearing, when he told The New York Times that he had no regrets sending his daughter back to Stuyvesant. “The health of your child is the number one thing you care about,” he said, “but at the same time you try not to allow unsubstantiated fear to overcome the actual facts.” Days later, the Daily News would report that the EPA ombudsman found that the debris barge had re-contaminated Stuyvesant High with trade center dust.

Schumer’s aides insist he was keeping tabs on efforts to clean up the contamination and to provide health care to ailing people downtown. Maintains the Schumer aide, “Chuck was always supportive of these efforts.”

Many 9-11 advocates remember inviting the senator to attend town hall meetings in the spring and summer of 2002 on the 9-11 health crisis, or copying his office on July 2003 letters addressed to the EPA about its “inept and haphazard” cleanup plans, or even seeking help for ground-zero-related injuries. Some traveled to Capitol Hill loaded down with tools of persuasion: articles on the toxic dust, surveys of sick students, independent tests showing high levels of asbestos inside apartments. At times, they met with Schumer’s aides, who listened to their appeals.

“They don’t say, ‘Not my problem,’ ” says Orkin, who lobbied Schumer’s office on behalf of 9/11 Environmental Action and the World Trade Center Environmental Organization a half-dozen times from 2002 to 2005. “But nothing significant ever came out of my lobbying trips.” No requests to attend press events, nor any announcements of funding—things that did come out of trips to the offices of Clinton, Nadler, and Maloney.

By August 2003, many advocates had given up on Schumer. That month, the EPA inspector general issued a scathing report concluding the agency had watered down its ground zero warnings on orders from the White House—sparking outrage among the congressional allies.

Clinton and Nadler called on the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the EPA. The junior senator, meanwhile, used her Senate committee seat to force the agency to form a blue-ribbon panel to draft a second cleanup plan and survey community health needs. She wrote two letters to Bush demanding accountability, and on the Senate floor, she railed against the White House for misleading New Yorkers. “Dictating what the EPA can generally say is inexcusable,” she told her colleagues, “but making them misinform the public on such a critical issue is outrageous.”

Schumer did not join in her calls for an investigation. Nor did he sign on to her letters or make a floor speech. He barely voiced his support, let alone his outrage. “While it is understandable that in the midst of a crisis the White House did not want the EPA to sound alarmist,” he told reporters, “if the public loses faith that things are safe when the government says so, we’ll have done more damage than a pointed statement the week after 9-11.”


Two years later, Schumer at last expressed public outrage over the 9-11 living victims. It was June 2, 2005, and the Bush administration was trying to take back $125 million in aid for sick ground zero workers—aid that had come from the original billions he’d helped fight for and protect. Energetic in any money fight, Schumer held his first press conference on the 9-11 health issues, standing beside labor leaders, and blasting the president for reneging on a promise.

“Providing health care for the heroes who selflessly gave of themselves after 9-11 is absolutely consistent with the promise of our government to do whatever it takes to get New York back on its feet,” he declared.

Over the next six months, he joined the rest of New York’s delegation in restoring that money to pay for worker compensation benefits and treatment. By all accounts, he waged the fight with his trademark vigor—as the UFOA’s Gorman describes it, “Schumer went ballistic.” He teamed up with Clinton, helping her lobby Senate colleagues and insert the funds into an appropriations bill. By November, the two were standing together, vowing to protect the money to the end.

It seemed like an epiphany for Schumer, the first hint of him embracing the cause. But the senior senator hadn’t climbed fully onboard just yet. John Feal, a disabled demolition supervisor who ended up with a scarred lung and half a foot after toiling at ground zero, remembers lobbying Schumer during the $125 million fight. By then, he and five other ground zero workers were traveling to D.C. to push for health care for the forgotten 9-11 victims. When Feal first met Schumer, the senator shook his hand and said, reassuringly, “I’ll stand with you.” The experience left Feal with the hopeful sense that, as he puts it, “here was a real stand-up guy.”

But when Feal contacted Schumer’s offices seeking help with his own injuries, both before and after that meeting, he got no response. “I got denied,” he says, after about a half-dozen calls. And as he got involved in the 9-11 health movement—helping to establish the Unsung Heroes Helping Heroes, reaching out to ground zero workers—Feal noticed that he rarely heard about the senior senator pushing initiatives behind the scenes or meeting with individual 9-11 responders.

“You have to do the legwork to move the issue,” says Feal, who now runs the Feal Good Foundation for ailing 9-11 workers, “and I can honestly say that he wasn’t doing it.”

What Schumer was doing struck advocates as mixed. In January 2006, he signed a congressional letter drafted by House members Maloney and Fossella to President Bush demanding a 9-11 health czar.

But that month, he also failed to heed the calls of Vito Valenti, a disabled District Council 37 grievance representative who had volunteered at ground zero searching for survivors and distributing medical equipment. Valenti, who suffers from pulmonary fibrosis and needs a lung transplant, had discovered that his application for a World Trade Center pension was foundering. So he phoned Schumer’s office, to no avail. He also wrote a January 2006 letter to the senator “begging for [his] help in this matter.”

Valenti thought Schumer might pen a letter to the pension board highlighting his case. Instead, he received a file letter, dated February 1, which called his application “an issue not of a federal nature,” and referred him elsewhere. When Valenti contacted Schumer’s office again—writing another letter months later—he got the same response.

“I’m sick and I’m asking for help and the senior senator says he cannot do something because it’s not a federal issue?” exclaims Valenti, a fixture at 9-11 health rallies and activist events, exclaims an incredulous Valenti.

Granted, a U.S. senator cannot respond to every constituent (even Clinton’s office has only returned a phone call to Valenti promising a future response). But the dichotomy seems to reflect Schumer’s slow embrace, at least until that September 2006 hearing, of the cause.

Since the fall of 2006, Schumer has become a consistent player on the 9-11 environmental health front. He has helped sponsor Clinton-drafted legislation allocating $1.9 billion for medical treatment for “all of those who served, lived, and worked in the area in the aftermath of 9-11,” among other related bills. He has helped write to Bush demanding “cooperation and support to find a solution to this problem.” And he and his staff have attended meetings with Bush officials to push for a long-term plan for the crisis.


Lately, Schumer has stood with his colleagues in visible and symbolic ways. He appeared at a January 22 press conference at the trade center site, a highly scripted event meant to highlight the need for more federal funding. By then, he had already invited an ailing 9-11 responder to use his pass at the president’s State of the Union speech—as Clinton, Nadler, Maloney, and Fossella did as well. Tall and formidable, his blue suit punctuated by an orange tie, Schumer assumed his place next to these usual faces, flanked by dozens more belonging to sick ground zero workers, residents, students, and office employees. Some carried the standard signs: ”
Support 9/11 Workers and Families” and ”
Heroes Deserve Better.” At the podium, he stressed that those who have developed 9-11–related illnesses aren’t asking for much, really.

“We are praying that President Bush steps up to the plate,” Schumer told the scrum. “It is only the right thing to do.”

Call it another Schumer moment, standing before TV cameras, fighting for his constituents. But the senior senator has, in recent months, also stood with his colleagues in quiet yet significant ways. He lent his signature to a defiant August 2006 letter to EPA administrator Stephen Johnson, ordering the agency to “make a full and complete discourse to the public about health risks associated with World Trade Center contamination, and institute a proper testing and cleanup program.” Largely unnoticed, that letter marks the first time Schumer has ever publicly backed the call for an indoor cleanup plan.

He has even gone above and beyond many of his congressional colleagues. On July 31, 2006, he wrote a blistering letter to the company handling the $1 billion Captive Insurance Fund, in which he urged it to stop acting “like a stingy, bottom-line-obsessed corporation” and start paying the claims of ailing 9-11 workers. Within weeks, his aides say, he met with company and city officials to negotiate ways of getting that money into the hands of those workers. (Last week, Mayor Bloomberg proposed creating a new victims’ compensation fund financed by that $1 billion.) Meanwhile, according to Capitol Hill insiders, he volunteered to sponsor the Senate version of a controversial House bill meant to provide health care to all living victims—whether his junior colleague did or not.

Today, Schumer appears as quiet about his newfound advocacy as he was about the health effects of the 9-11 fallout for almost five years. His aides continue to deny any evolution on his part: “Just because these other lawmakers took the lead and advocated effectively doesn’t mean that Senator Schumer wasn’t 100-percent supportive,” Heller says. “In fact, at every turn, the senator has aggressively supported efforts to protect and expand the worker health programs.”

Schumer, too, insists that his thinking on these issues has not changed. “I’ve cared about these issues from the beginning,” he says. Though he acknowledges that Senator Clinton has been “the public face” of the 9-11 living victims, he says: “Every time in Washington she did something, I was by her side. I don’t think you can find a time when I didn’t take an interest in all these issues she was working on.” He brings up the division of labor again. “We divide up the issues,” he says, “and that’s how it works. It’s when the issue becomes more prominent that I might get more involved publicly.”

As his comments suggest, Schumer and his aides do recognize that the landscape has changed. Now more people are suffering from more diseases directly linked to their 9-11 exposures. Today, as the aide explains, “We have
moved from a situation where testing was the predominant issue to one where treatment for
actual injuries is dominant,” thus making Schumer’s work on that $1 billion fund “the starting
point for moving money to our injured heroes.”

New York political sources who have followed these issues view Schumer’s current advocacy as a sign of his turnaround. They say that early on, he remained dubious of the health effects of the trade center pollution. “Chuck was initially skeptical of the whole problem and it took him a while to become convinced of it,” confirms one Capitol Hill insider who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Others say they assumed that he would come around—after all, he has built his career on helping his constituents.

“People who change their minds on the basis of evidence should be praised,” the insider says, “and Chuck seems to have had a change in heart.”

Schumer’s constituents are counting on that change of heart. Already, advocates have begun reaching out to his offices again. Labor leaders talk about keeping the senior senator engaged on their medical treatment battle. Residents talk about winning his ear on their latest EPA fight. Everyone is hoping that his recent advocacy means that Schumer has moved from a good Democrat to a true believer in the cause.


And they haven’t forgotten that good things can happen when you have two powerful senators speaking out on your behalf. A case in point: One week after Schumer stood with Clinton at the January 22 press conference—and after a flurry of news reports about the death of another sick ground zero worker—President Bush announced he would allocate an additional $25 million for the WTC programs. It doesn’t come close to the $1.9 billion that Clinton estimates would take care of all the living victims. But now that the Democrats control the Senate, she and her senior colleague could make a real difference. Says Sheinkopf, the veteran consultant, “Having the two of them united on this one argument would be the most important thing to happen to anyone who’s been impacted.”

Recently, John Sferazo, the president of Unsung Heroes Helping Heroes, delivered that message to Schumer himself. Sferazo is a disabled construction worker from Long Island whose ground zero tenure has left him practically without a voice—he is, in short, the real Joe Bailey. When he spotted the senator by chance at a Washington inauguration party last month, he made his move.

“Senator,” Sferazo told Schumer, “we expect you to grab the others and lead the fight to get this 9-11 health issue resolved.”

This time, after a year of fruitlessly trying to contact Schumer through his office, Sferazo got an immediate response.

“You bet I will,” Schumer replied.


NY Pans Another EPA 9-11 Plan

(Photo by Holly Northrop/

It seems the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has done it again, offering yet another false assurance to New Yorkers about fallout from the 9/11 terrorist attacks. At least, that’s how many people who live and work in downtown Manhattan have come to view the agency’s latest announcement. This afternoon, the EPA unveiled what it is calling the “final phase” in its response to the 9/11 environmental fallout—a new plan to test for toxic dust from the World Trade Center disaster.

The plan isn’t exactly new, however. Indeed, it mirrors a proposal the EPA had first announced in November 2005, one that residents, office workers, and activists had panned as inadequate. Back then, the agency had released what was billed as the final plan to test for and clean up lingering Trade Center dust—a $7 million effort limited to residences below Canal Street. With that plan, the agency had taken a sudden turn after months of debate on the matter, scaling back an earlier version, tossing advice from its expert panel and nixing nearly every promise to the downtown community.

Hours before the agency’s announcement today, activists long bent on pushing the EPA to do the right thing and clean up downtown were gearing up for the worst. And they pretty much got it. Already, critics have ticked off the same complaints about this new plan that they had ticked off before: It is underfunded (at $7 million, again); it abides by an arbitrary geographic boundary (south of Canal Street and west of Allen Street, again); and it remains limited to residences (excluding workplaces unless a landlord consents, again). About the only thing the new plan does is to test for such toxins as fiberglass, asbestos, lead, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. EPA officials say they will give priority to those who live or work in buildings located closest to the World Trade Center site; residents and landlords will have two months beginning in January to register for the program.

As far as critics are concerned, the agency’s new plan amounts to an exercise in futility.

“This plan is clearly unacceptable,” says Kimberly Flynn, of the 9/11 Environmental Action, one of the most active groups on the issue. Flynn points out that the current plan is effectively the same one rejected by not just the agency’s expert panel, but also the New York City Council and all three Lower Manhattan community boards. “The EPA has had a year to enact the recommendations of the community,” she says, “and the EPA has not done so. And so here we are. We’re stuck with a poor plan.”

In announcing the plan, EPA officials acknowledged that not much had changed about the clean up program in the past 12 months. They explained the year-long delay in implementing the program to attempts to further develop a so-called signature, or marker of Trade Center dust. Officials had decided to re-examine the proposed signature, consisting of slag wool, mostly, an insulation used in the towers. But that effort failed. So, as George Gray, of EPA’s Office of Research and Development, put it in a telephone conference call with local reporters on Wednesday, “We believe it’s now time to implement this plan of action.” Though Gray made a point to stress that, “The vast majority of residences and commercial spaces have been repeatedly cleaned and the amount of lingering dust is likely small, so the potential for exposure is likely small.”

Downtown activists see things differently. “It’s yet another false assurance following all the other false assurances we’ve had over the years,” charges Suzanne Mattei, of the Sierra Club, whose New York City offices are located on John Street, just blocks from where the twin towers once stood.

Right after the terrorist attacks, the EPA told New Yorkers conditions were safe when in fact they were not. Five years later, thousands of people have gotten sick, and thousands more remember how the dust blanketed their neighborhoods. The growing number of blood cell cancers among rescue and recovery workers who shifted through rubble at the Trade Center site has some scientists talking about the beginnings of a 9/11 cancer cluster.

EPA officials insist that this final plan is just that, the last of a series of attempts meant to give people who live and work downtown some “peace of mind.” Said Alan Steinberg, the EPA regional administrator, during the press call: “I understand the uncertainties and the frustration that have resulted from the aftermath of 9/11. All I can say is that we believe we’ve acted in a very deliberative and considerate way to address the concerns.”

That, of course, remains up for debate. Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), who represents ground zero and who has led the fight to hold the EPA accountable for its response to the 9/11 fallout, suggested the debate wasn’t over yet when he blasted the agency for its weak program, which he described as “another slap in the face to the residents and workers of Lower Manhattan. Nadler made sure to note the change in political power in Congress come January, vowing, “A Democratic Congress will hold the EPA accountable.”

In other words, stay tuned.


Death by Dust

It was October 6, 2004, three years after Ernie Vallebuona’s three-month stint as a rescue and recovery worker at ground zero in the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, and he was hunched over and trembling, racked by a pain like nothing he had experienced in his 40 years of sound health. He had just returned to his Rockland County home after finishing the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift in the NYPD vice unit, where he’d reported to work for the last six years. Vallebuona had bought some fish from a street vendor near his office, on the Lower East Side. And as he drove the 35 miles from Manhattan to New City, he chalked up a searing stomachache to food poisoning. Maybe the vendor had filleted that fish with a dirty machete?

By the time he pulled into his driveway, the pain had grown excruciating, too horrible for him to even lie in bed that day. The chills swept over his body; so did the shakes. He called his doctor, who suggested ulcer medication. His mother advised him to forget that diagnosis and consult a specialist instead, but like a lot of young, healthy men, he didn’t listen right away.

Vallebuona isn’t much for complaining; what ailing cop is? But for six months, he had noticed his body betraying him. His toes had reddened; his joints had stiffened. They throbbed in prickly pangs, as if glass shards were wedged underneath his skin. When his own heartbeat began to hurt, he had visited the family doctor, who diagnosed him with gout. He was told to drink cherry juice and take anti-inflammatory medicine. Neither worked.

Now as his stomach convulsed, Vallebuona listened to his mother at last. Later that day, he found himself at a gastroenterologist’s office in Pomona, lying on a table, watching a nurse poke at his abdomen. She felt a lump and ordered tests. It would take a month to reach a definitive diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphoid tissue. Evidently, Vallebuona had developed a golf-ball-sized mass in his abdomen that had grown so fast and so quick that pieces of it were dying and depositing into his blood, causing gout-like symptoms.

One week after that, he was at a Manhattan hospital, meeting his oncologist, hearing about the heavy-duty chemotherapy he would have to undergo over the next four months. At the visit, a nurse explained he had an aggressive cancer—a rare stage-three—and asked a battery of questions.

Did he ever do modeling with glue?
Did he ever handle insecticides?
Did he ever work with chemicals like benzene?

Vallebuona answered no to all the questions. He had led a clean life; before becoming a cop, he’d worked in a bank.

Sitting in the examining room with him, Vallebuona’s wife, Amy, finally spoke up.

“What about 9-11?” she asked. “What about all that smoke and dust?”

Only then did Ernie Vallebuona first consider the possibility that the events of September 11 could be the cause of his cancer.

This is not the story of rescue and recovery workers at ground zero getting sick with respiratory illnesses from their exposure; you have read those stories, and you have heard those cases.

This is the story of 9-11 and cancer.

To date, 75 recovery workers on or around what is now known as “the Pile”—the rubble that remained after the World Trade Center towers collapsed on the morning of September 11, 2001—have been diagnosed with blood cell cancers that a half-dozen top doctors and epidemiologists have confirmed as having been likely caused by that exposure.

Those 75 cases have come to light in joint-action lawsuits filed against New York City on behalf of at least 8,500 recovery workers who suffer from various forms of lung illnesses and respiratory diseases—and suggest a pattern too distinct to ignore. While some cancers take years, if not decades, to develop, the blood cancers in otherwise healthy and young individuals represent a pattern that experts believe will likely prove to be more than circumstantial. The suits seek to prove that these 8,500 workers—approximately 20 percent of the total estimated recovery force that cleared the rubble from ground zero—all suffer from the debilitating effects of those events.

The basis for the suits stems from the plaintiffs’ argument that the government—in a desperate attempt to revive downtown in the wake of the catastrophic events on 9-11—failed to protect workers from cancer-causing benzene, dioxin, and other hazardous chemicals that permeated the air for months. Officials made these failures worse by falsely reassuring New Yorkers that they faced no long-term dangers from exposure to the air lingering over ground zero.

“We are very encouraged that the results from our monitoring of air-quality and drinking-water conditions in both New York and near the Pentagon show that the public in these areas is not being exposed to excessive levels of asbestos or other harmful substances,” Christine Todd Whitman, the then administrator of the EPA, told the citizens of New York City in a press release on September 18—only seven days after the attacks. “Given the scope of the tragedy from last week, I am glad to reassure the people of New York . . . that their air is safe to breathe and the water is safe to drink.”


Those statements were not only false and misleading, but may even play into the basis for the city’s liability for millions of dollars in the recovery workers’ lawsuits. Last February, U.S. District Judge Deborah Batts cited Whitman’s false statements as the basis for allowing a different class-action lawsuit to proceed—this one, against the EPA and Whitman, is on behalf of residents, office workers, and students from Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, many of whom suffer from respiratory illnesses as a result of 9-11.

“No reasonable person would have thought that telling thousands of people that it was safe to return to Lower Manhattan, while knowing that such return could pose long-term health risks and other dire consequences, was conduct sanctioned by our laws,” Batts wrote in her February 2 ruling. “Whitman’s deliberate and misleading statements made to the press, where she reassured the public that the air was safe to breathe around Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, and that there would be no health risk presented to those returning to the areas, shocks the conscience.”

And that was before anyone knew of the apparent cancer link, first reported in the New York news media in the spring of 2004. Even more shocking is the incidence of cancer and other life-threatening illnesses that have developed among those participating in the recovery workers’ lawsuits. Given the fact that some cancers are slower to develop than others, it seems likely to several doctors and epidemiologists that many more reports of cancer and serious lung illnesses will surface in the months and years to come. The fact that 8,500 recovery workers have already banded together to sue, only five years later—with 400 total cancer patients among their number—leads many experts to predict that these figures are likely to grow, meaning a possible death toll in the thousands.

In many ways, these illnesses suggest the slow but deteriorating health issues that faced the atomic-bomb survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where thousands died in the years and decades that followed the United States’ use of nuclear weapons. And that similarity has not been lost on David Worby, the 53-year-old attorney leading the joint-action suits on behalf of those workers who are already sick, and even dying.

“In the end,” Worby declares, “our officials might be responsible for more deaths than Osama bin Laden on 9-11.”

In the five years since the attacks, much of the focus on the 9-11 health crisis has missed a broader question, the one that every ground zero worker fears most and the one that Ernie Vallebuona has already had to ponder: What about cancer? What if all that pulverized concrete and ground glass and caustic mist that Vallebuona inhaled while on the Pile didn’t attack his lungs but instead went straight for his lymph nodes? Could this noxious mix have caused his lymphoma?

No one has done a comprehensive study of the health consequences on the estimated 40,000 rescue and recovery workers who raced to ground zero after the attacks. A study by Mount Sinai Medical Center—one that received widespread media attention two months ago—released statistics on the five-year anniversary of 9-11 that focused almost exclusively on respiratory problems and bypassed any mention of cancer today.

But David Worby has tracked the cancer patients among his growing client base for the last two years. Here are the latest tallies: Of the 8,500 people now suing the city, 400, or about 5 percent, have cancer. The biggest group by far consists of people like Vallebuona, who have blood cell cancers. Seventy-five clients suffer from lymphoma, leukemia, multiple myeloma, and other blood cell cancers; most are men, aged 30 to 60, who appeared in perfect health just five years ago.

The field of cancer research is not known for consensus. But six prominent specialists on cancer and the link to toxins—on the faculty of the nation’s top medical schools and public health institutions—all come to the same conclusions when told these statistics. They are Richard Clapp and David Ozonoff, professors of environmental health at Boston University School of Public Health; Michael Thun, director of epidemiological research at the American Cancer Society; Francine Laden, assistant professor of environmental epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health; Jonathan Samet, chairman of the epidemiology department at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; and Charles Hesdorffer, associate professor of oncology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. These doctors and epidemiologists agree that the incidence of cancer among this subset of workers sounds shockingly high, that they cannot and should not be dismissed as coincidence, and that the toxic dust cloud that hung over downtown Manhattan, and particularly the Pile, likely caused or promoted the diseases. Some even went so far as to say that the blood cancer cases, especially, indicate what could become a wave of cancer cases stemming from 9-11 over the next decades.


“Those numbers seem quite outrageous,” is how Hesdorffer puts it. Now at Johns Hopkins, Hesdorffer directed until last year the tumor immunotherapy program at Columbia University Medical Center, where he treated two recovery workers who got cancer post–9-11. He notes that the average healthy adult person has a 20 percent risk of having cancer over a lifetime. Calculate that risk over five years—the time frame from the events of 9-11 until today—and it drops to about 1 percent. Yet 5 percent of the suits’ workers—1 percent of the overall worker population—have already been diagnosed with malignancies. And these patients don’t include the thousands whose illnesses have yet to be recorded because they aren’t participating in the lawsuits or in the World Trade Center medical-monitoring programs.

What the experts find most telling are the types of cancer now emerging. They say the blood cancer cases seem too disproportionate to be random. Two percent of these workers have been diagnosed with what amounts to related diseases, none of which fall into the “high-frequency” category, which includes prostate cancer. One out of 9,000 people nationwide gets lymphoma a year; for myeloma, it’s one out of 30,000. By contrast, the 75 blood cancer patients translate into several dozen new cases a year.

“That’s not just a fluke,” says Ozonoff, who studies cancer clusters and toxic waste sites.

Samet, a worldwide expert on smoking and cancer, notes that when so many cases of related cancers emerge, it can signal a forming cluster. “It sounds like an impressive cluster of cancer cases, and I would want to study it,” he says.

To be sure, the experts advise caution until more evidence is collected. They acknowledge that the data needed to draw a definite link between 9-11 and cancer don’t exist. None of the cancers emerging now are the kinds that come only from toxic exposures—like, say, asbestosis, which is caused by asbestos and can take two decades to grow. This sentinel cancer would go a long way toward proving a 9-11 connection. Absent that, scientists would want to determine whether a higher proportion of cancer patients exists among the workers than in the general public. But because there are no independent data on the 40,000-strong group, they can’t make this calculation yet. Meanwhile, the latency periods for most cancers from the time of a full-blown carcinogenic exposure to a full-blown malignancy can take years, if not decades. Says Thun, of the American Cancer Society: “It is the exception rather than the rule to have cancers develop this quickly.”

Despite the lack of definitive data, we may still be in the midst of a cancer epidemic. Indeed, according to these experts, traditional data don’t help much here because 9-11 represents such a singular exposure. No one can deny that the workers were exposed to a blend of pulverized and aerosolized toxins that had never existed in any occupational setting before. And this mix of toxins alone is enough to cause more aggressive cancers.

“It’s also enough to throw out prescriptions on timing,” Hesdorffer adds.

Back in May 2004, before most doctors even contemplated a 9-11 link to cancer, Hesdorffer provided testimony to the federal government’s September 11 Victim Compensation Fund on behalf of one police officer who had developed pancreatic cancer within a year after his recovery stint. Hesdorffer finds it odd that two of his patients had been diagnosed with the rare cancer after working on the Pile. “It’s strange to have two people who were subjected to the same exposure,” he says, “developing the same cancer in the same time frame.” Now that he has learned of Worby’s statistics, he is convinced that “there is definitely more than a likely link between the 9-11 exposures and cancer.”

Francine Laden, who specializes in air pollution and cancer, agrees. Because so many of Worby’s clients have blood cancers—which have faster incubation periods than tumor cancers, forming in as little as five years—Laden confirms that it’s not a stretch to attribute their diseases to the dust cloud. “Blood cancers are different,” she says, noting the tie between benzene and leukemia, as well as dioxin and lymphoma. “It’s not beyond the realm of feasibility that these chemicals caused these cancers.”


Ozonoff puts it more firmly: “For an acute episode like this, it’s definitely possible these blood cancers were caused by 9-11.”

Ozonoff echoes all five of his colleagues when he draws parallels between the aftermath of 9-11 and that of another massive exposure: the atomic-bombs dropped on Japan. Bomb survivors experienced excessive spikes in leukemia rates within the first five years, a surprising discovery for epidemiologists in the mid 20th century. While this outbreak resulted from radiation, both it and 9-11 involved a sudden and intense blast of carcinogens. For bomb survivors, leukemia appeared first, followed by breast and lung cancer. “That could happen with 9-11,” says Samet, the Johns Hopkins epidemiology department chair. “It might be what we’re seeing today.”

It’s also possible that the carcinogens in the Trade Center dust accelerated cancers already dormant or developing in the recovery workers, epidemiologists say. According to Richard Clapp, who directed the Massachusetts Cancer Registry from 1980 to 1989, toxins can not only instigate the genes that cause cancerous cells to divide, but also hasten their dividing. That means that a person with an undetected cancer will develop it faster and in a more virulent manner. He calls this the “promotional effect” and says some toxins associated with 9-11 have been known to speed up lymphomas and leukemias. “The promotional effect could have happened already,” he says.

Either way, Clapp adds, “It’s hard not to attribute these cancers to 9-11.” His gut, he says, is telling him one thing: “We’ll be seeing a cancer explosion from 9-11, and we’re starting to see it today.”

A nurse would ask John Walcott about possible causes of his acute myelogenous leukemia. 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.
photo: Scott McDermott

At 8:30 on the morning of the terrorist attacks, Ernie Vallebuona was driving with his three-year-old son, also named Ernie, to a nearby Home Depot in search of the perfect paint color for the family bathroom. Vallebuona always listens to 1010 WINS in the car, so he turned on the radio. He soon heard the incredible news that a plane had crashed into one of the twin towers. Instantly, he got the call to respond.

“We’re all mobilizing,” his NYPD supervisor told him via cell phone. “Get to work as fast as you can.”

Over in Pomona, some 36 miles away from Manhattan, 37-year-old NYPD detective John Walcott was at his suburban home, killing time before a midnight tour on the narcotics unit, where he’d worked for a dozen years. He was relaxing on the couch when a friend from St. Louis called.

“What the hell is going on in New York?” the friend asked, incredulously. Walcott had no idea what his friend meant. He flipped on the TV, only to see flames raging from the twin towers. Minutes later, he was behind the wheel of his minivan, speeding down the highway toward the World Trade Center.

Some 200 miles southeast of the Trade Center site, 49-year-old Gary Acker was working in a bomb shelter dubbed the “earth station,” an undisclosed location where AT&T keeps its large satellite dishes. At the time, Acker was managing the company’s disaster recovery team, which restores critical communications after catastrophes. He had long viewed the post as the crowning achievement in his 31-year career, one that suited his desire to make a difference.

When the first plane hit the north tower, he was sitting in an equipment room, four floors below ground, running emergency drills. No one had turned on the TV, so he remained oblivious to the events unfolding in Manhattan. His wife, Alison, called him.

“Look at the TV,” she said, just as the second plane hit the south tower. Acker knew that New York City officials would be calling AT&T for help. “Pack up your equipment,” he heard his wife say, “and get ready to ride.”

Back in Manhattan, Jessy McCarthy was not about to roll anywhere. The Verizon field technician was sitting in his office on East 91st Street, listening to the news on the radio, when he heard about the planes hitting the towers. He froze in place, unable to pull himself away from the broadcast for hours that day. Only that afternoon did he manage to go to a nearby work site to repair phone lines. Sitting in his truck, he stared in disbelief at all the people doused in gray dust walking up Third Avenue from downtown. His eyes locked on the caravan of people who’d been caught in that cloud.


By the time McCarthy was taking in this ghostly scene, Vallebuona and Walcott had joined thousands of first responders at the World Trade Center. Both arrived at the site shortly after the 110-story twin towers came crashing down, and they spent the next 15 hours sifting through the wreckage. Racing to the scene from the Seventh Precinct, on Pitt Street, Vallebuona encountered a giant cloud of dust and smoke so hazy and dense, he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face. He circled the periphery of what he thought was the scene, following the blaring sirens and running past pumper trucks and police cruisers twisted up like discarded tin cans. The dust caked his eyes and coated his lips. It filled his nostrils with a horrible smell, like burned plastic and flesh. Vallebuona happened to have a bandanna in his pants pocket, which he wrapped across his face. It did little to ward off the rancid odor.

Walcott was also experiencing the noxious effects of the chemical brew. While the massive cloud had dissipated, the crystalline particles hung in the air like speckles in a snow globe. He waded though mounds of pulverized dust, knee-deep, tasting it on his lips, spitting it out of his mouth. Without a mask, he was coughing immediately. First came the black mucus and ashen chunks, then the dry heaves and blood. For hours, he wiped away dark gunk dripping from his eyes. He couldn’t help but think that something was wrong. But he focused on the mission at hand, on the faint hope of discovering survivors. That day, he stepped over the only human body that he would find intact—a female, burned beyond recognition, a charred bra over her face.

Acker arrived on the scene 24 hours later, after driving with 11 team members up the East Coast in a company trailer equipped with satellite transmission consoles and multiplex cables. He would spend the next 33 days in and around ground zero—first setting up a satellite at 1 Police Plaza, then manning phone lines across the street from what came to be known as the Pile. The plume enveloped the area from the moment he set foot there until he left. Many nights, he’d oversee the satellite atop 1 Police Plaza, just east of ground zero, and watch as the prevailing winds subsided and the bright-blue smoke settled in. It hung so heavily on the city that he couldn’t see the guards stationed across the street.

In these early days, Acker, Vallebuona, and Walcott all struggled to protect themselves from the toxic dust. The foul odor clogged the air for the three months that Vallebuona ended up working at the site—first on the Pile, hauling rubble with buckets, then around the perimeter, providing security and escorting residents to their dust-laden homes. When he and Walcott searched the rubble as part of the initial bucket brigade, they wore nothing over their faces but surgical masks. Respirator masks came weeks into their months-long recovery work; sometimes they came with the wrong filters.

Because Walcott was a detective, he ended up spending his five-month stint not just at ground zero, but also at Fresh Kills. As much as he choked on the Lower Manhattan air, he dreaded the Staten Island landfill. Walcott knew everything in the towers had fallen—desks, lights, computers. But apart from the occasional steel beam, the detritus that he sifted through there consisted of tiny grains of dust—no furniture pieces, no light fixtures, not even a computer mouse.

At times, the detectives would take shelter in wooden sheds, in an attempt to get away from what Walcott likes to call “all that freaking bad air.” One day, he was sitting in the shed with his colleagues, eating candy bars and drinking sodas, when some FBI agents entered. They were dressed in full haz-mat suits, complete with head masks, which they had sealed shut with duct tape to ward off the fumes. As Walcott took in the scene, contrasting the well-protected FBI agents with the New York cops wearing respirator masks, one thought entered his mind: What is wrong with this picture?

The same thought would cross Acker’s mind only fleetingly, and only after weeks of working near ground zero, while he was hacking so hard he vomited something akin to chewed-up licorice. During his first days at the site, he wore the painter’s mask that an NYPD lieutenant had given him, but it soon became too filthy from debris. By October, he was spitting up so much gunk that he called his doctor for an antibiotics prescription. But he wouldn’t leave the site; when the fumes got bad, he’d sit in the company trailer and flip on the air conditioner. That had a filter, at least. AT&T had stocked its disaster trailers with almost everything—rubber boots, hard hats, rope, a first aid kit. Funny, Acker thought, staring at the shelves. All this stuff, yet no one had ever considered respirators.


Around this time, McCarthy was just beginning to report for recovery duty. When Verizon asked for volunteers to restore phone lines near ground zero, he didn’t hesitate. He arrived for his first assignment in early October and wound up staying downtown for the next 13 months, going from basement to basement, moving from Wall Street skyscrapers to Chinatown walk-ups. The first thing he saw in the company terminals was the Trade Center dust, piled on top of consoles, crammed into corners. He had to wipe down the equipment with his bare hands to see the wires. The dust had an orange hue; at times, it twinkled. And it always stunk, an unforgettable smell he struggled to get past every time. Invariably, he’d find it in his hair, on his eyelashes, in his tool belt, even under his fingernails. Sometimes, he’d gaze at the ceiling and get the sense of standing in the middle of a meadow thick with pollen. He could see the soot and dust floating in the air.

When it occurred to these responders that they might be sacrificing their health for the sake of the cleanup—as it did to anyone who came in contact with the foul-smelling smoke and dust—they took comfort in the official word at the time. In the immediate aftermath of 9-11, the EPA issued multiple statements on the air quality downtown. All were reassuring in nature. On September 18, the day after the New York Stock Exchange reopened for business, the EPA’s Whitman said the air was safe to breathe.

It has turned out those words were, in fact, false. In August 2003, the EPA inspector general issued a scathing 155-page report concluding that the agency hadn’t had the data to make such blanket declarations at that time. By then, more than a quarter of EPA samples showed unsafe levels of asbestos, and the agency had yet to complete tests for mercury, cadmium, lead, dioxin, and PCBs. The inspector general’s report went on to disclose another disconcerting fact—that the White House had pressured the EPA to sanitize its warnings about ground zero. The inspector general revealed that the White House Council on Environmental Quality had taken a red pen to the agency’s press releases, adding reassuring statements and deleting cautionary ones, creating the overly rosy picture that the air was clean.

In reality, the 9-11 fallout was like nothing anyone had been exposed to before. Everything in the towers had been ground into dust—concrete, steel, glass, insulation, plastic, and computers. Dust analyses would detect glass shards, cement particles, cellulose fibers, asbestos, and a mixture of harmful components, including lead, titanium, barium, and gypsum. In all, the dust contained more than 100 different compounds, some of which have never been identified. And then there were the fires that smoldered for three months. They gave off not only the putrid plume, but also a blast of carcinogens—asbestos, dioxin, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. They also emitted benzene.

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

In May 2003, John Walcott was 39 years old. He had just become a first-time father—of his daughter, Colleen—and 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 instead—on 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

Meanwhile, Vallebuona had just begun noticing gout-like symptoms. They started in his big toes, which doubled in size and became hot to the touch, and then moved to his knees, joints, and chest. For six months, he went back and forth to the doctor, getting more medicine, seeking more remedies. He wouldn’t doubt that diagnosis until October 2004, when the searing stomachache tipped him off to what had really been causing pain in his abdomen.

When he got the cancer diagnosis, Valle-buona was relieved about one thing. His doctor had been wrong about the gout. If nothing else, at least he wouldn’t have to live with that excruciating pain for the rest of his life.

As Vallebuona was coming to grips with his cancer in the fall of 2004, Jessy McCarthy was still feeling healthy. The Verizon technician had managed to evade the kinds of respiratory problems that have afflicted so many ground zero workers—the cough, the sinusitis, the asthma—in the two years since his recovery assignment had ended. He would experience nothing to suggest the grave disease that would sneak up on him.


At least not until one day in October 2004, while taking a shower, when he saw a swelling around the glands under his arm, about the size of a marble. He thought: This is not right.

In March 2005, after a biopsy of one of his lymph nodes, Jessy McCarthy finally was given the definitive diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. By then, the recovery workers’ lawsuits had been more than a year in the making.
photo: Scott McDermott

But McCarthy didn’t feel sick; there were no dizzy spells or nausea. A trip to the family doctor to ask about the lump yielded little information, just something questionable about his blood. So McCarthy plodded on with his life, holding down his full-time job, taking care of his teenage son.

Suddenly, within weeks, he noticed the lump had grown, and more had developed. His lymph nodes swelled all over his body, underneath his arms, in his groin, around his neck and chest. The lumps just seemed to sprout; they grew so big that they looked like mini-baseballs. Suddenly, McCarthy found himself undergoing a battery of medical exams—CAT scans, PET scans, blood tests, and anything else that would help narrow down the possibilities. It took six months to rule out every type of lymphatic infection. In March 2005, after a biopsy of one of his lymph nodes, McCarthy finally was given the definitive diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

By then, the recovery workers’ lawsuits had been more than a year in the making. Back in the winter of 2004, Walcott had just survived the worst of his hospital stays, a 17-day stretch of 106-degree fevers, and was confined to his home. Months had passed since he learned that his leukemia likely resulted from his exposure to benzene while on the Pile, but he went in search of legal advice. He started with a lawyer friend, who encouraged him to keep looking. One attorney offered to take Walcott’s case, as long as he put up his modest house to cover the fees. “Forget it,” he said.

Eventually, parents of the kids on his high school hockey team heard about his plight. During a visit, Walcott told some parents about his fruitless search. They had an idea. They could contact a trial lawyer whose son went to the same high school; his name was David Worby.

“I took the case as a favor,” the lead attorney in the recovery workers’ lawsuits says, sitting in his spacious penthouse office in White Plains. A trim man whose brown hair is graying at the temples, David Worby exudes confidence as he reclines in his chair and recalls the early days of what has become his greatest legal crusade. Long before the 9-11 suits, he had built a reputation as a gladiator lawyer on personal-injury cases; in 1989, he set a Westchester record by winning $18 million for a construction worker run down by a car. Fifteen years later, he was settling into early retirement when one of the Bedford parents told him about the ailing Walcott.

“What was I supposed to do?” Worby asks.

What started out as a case for one sick recovery worker quickly snowballed. Today, a team of 20 attorneys at his firm of Worby Groner Edelman Napoli & Bern is handling the suits, filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, for the thousands of workers associated with the Trade Center cleanup—police officers, firefighters, sanitation workers, iron workers, and Latino day workers. Last month, Federal District Judge Alvin Hellerstein rejected the city’s claim for immunity in the Worby lawsuits and recently capped its liability at $1 billion. The judge is expected to appoint a special master to settle the workers’ claims.

Worby’s client list continues to grow. It now includes Vallebuona, Acker, and McCarthy, all of whom came to him after he filed the first suits in September 2004. They found out about him as most of his clients do—by word of mouth, one sick recovery worker to another, one worried spouse to another. Others have called him after hearing about the cases on TV or the radio or in the papers. Most of the clients have grown ill from respiratory problems like asthma, sinusitis, and bronchitis. But some have kidney failure, and 400 people have developed cancer. So far, 83 clients have died.

The number of cancer patients has multiplied at a rate that Worby says he never anticipated. Back in 2004, he represented only 20 workers who had cancer. But by last March, he had watched that number soar to 200, and within six months after that, it had doubled. Now he gets at least several calls a week from clients who have just been diagnosed with some cancer. Or from new clients who have had the cancer for weeks or months.


Like many trial lawyers, Worby has a penchant for talking in fervent, breathless tones, as though his words were writ large, in bright, blinking letters. Convinced that the 9-11 fallout has made for a cancer explosion, he doesn’t hesitate to say so. “There is going to be a cancer catastrophe the likes of which we’ve never seen in this country,” he says. “The numbers are going to be staggering.”

Perhaps it’d be easy to dismiss him as another hot-aired plaintiffs’ attorney were it not for his own command of numbers. He has become something of a gumshoe epidemiologist, compiling the data on his cancer patients that are lacking in the larger worker population, tracking their diseases, ages, diagnosis dates, and their 9-11 exposures. “Look at the cancers my clients have,” he says, flipping through a dozen pages of a document entitled “Seriously Ill Clients.” It’s updated every month; this one is dated September 13, 2006. The document outlines what he calls his “cancer clusters” and lists rare cancers often associated with the 9-11 toxins, such as thyroid (30 people), tongue and throat (25), testicular (16), and brain (10). He keeps a separate document on the 75 people with blood cancers. Two dozen of them have various forms of leukemia; the remaining four dozen have various forms of lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and other blood cell cancers.

“If I had two blood cancers, it’d be a strong coincidence,” Worby argues. “But 70? That defies coincidence. The word coincidence should not be in anyone’s vocabulary.”

Worby contends that it wasn’t just the unprecedented amount of toxins in the air that caused his clients to develop cancer; it was that the toxins worked together. Worby calls it a “synergistic effect,” and cancer specialists say there is such a thing as toxic synergy, which occurs when chemicals combine. They can enhance the damage that the other ones would cause. Think of it this way: The benzene at ground zero may have caused Walcott’s acute leukemia; the dioxin probably sped up its development.

“This amount of toxicological exposure is going to speed up normal latency periods,” Worby argues. He makes this assertion with the same zeal that he exhibits in the courtroom, citing medical studies on animals, rattling off the findings as if they were second nature. Why would the doctors monitoring the effects of 9-11 on people’s health not understand this connection, he wonders. “Why would people not make this link?”

Five years after September 11, there’s no doubt that the toxic dust cloud has devastated the lungs of those who participated in the Trade Center cleanup. In September,
the Mount Sinai Medical Center released data from its WTC Worker and Volunteer Medical Screening Program, which has tested 17,500 recovery workers to date. In that analysis, doctors found that nearly 70
percent of the 9,500 subjects they surveyed experienced new or worsened respiratory symptoms at ground zero; close to 60 percent saw those symptoms persist for years. Doctors have seen chronic sinusitis, laryngitis, asthma, gastroesophageal reflux disorder, and disabling musculoskeletal conditions. Even the famous World Trade Center cough has lasted much longer than anticipated.

“All of us have been badly surprised by the persistence and the chronicity of the World
Trade Center diseases,” says Robin Herbert, the director of the screening program.

But at the Mount Sinai program (and at the WTC program of the FDNY, which declined to comment for this article), the link between the dust cloud and cancer is discussed more as a possibility than a reality. It’s not that doctors aren’t extremely concerned about the connection, Herbert says, given the cancer-causing agents and other toxins in the mix. While individual cancer cases may be attributed to 9-11 toxins, she says, the doctors, so far, lack full epidemiological proof linking the two.

“We don’t know if we’re seeing a spike in cancer rates,” Herbert says, as they have in the rates of respiratory illnesses. Herbert confirms that the Mount Sinai doctors have seen some workers with cancer, including unusual cancers, but says they’d expect some workers to develop malignancies over the last five years anyway. Is there more incidence of cancer among Pile workers than among those who didn’t toil on the Pile? “That’s the key question,” she says.
The Mount Sinai epidemiologists have just begun to try to answer that by launching an initiative to update medical records, document new diagnoses, and track less-com
mon diseases like cancer. It’s a slow process, with no timeline. Still, she says, “We are now aggressively investigating every case of cancer that has been reported to us.”


But the WTC programs—funded by the federal government—have their share of critics, who wonder how interested the doctors are in the 9-11 and cancer issue. Al O’Leary, the spokesperson for the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, says that many of its members feel as if the doctors are ignoring the signs of a growing cancer cluster. “It was our impression that no one in the medical-monitoring programs believed the cancers could be happening this early,” he explains.

Over the past year, the police union has fielded a steady increase in calls from members who have developed cancer since working at ground zero. Last July, the PBA started its own World Trade Center health registry for its members, listing seven cancer cases at the time. Today, there are 20 cases; they include the 35-year-old who worked on the Pile and at Fresh Kills and now has multiple myeloma, the 45-year-old who surveyed the Trade Center site for two years and now has leukemia, and the 41-year-old who manned the landfill morgue for three weeks and now has myeloma.

“Now, don’t you think this is all very suspicious?” O’Leary asks. “The medical community needs to be more open-minded about what diseases can be caused by 9-11.”

Some cancer specialists agree. Hesdorffer, of Johns Hopkins, still remembers the reaction to his testimony before the Victim Compensation Fund, back in 2004. He was called back about a half-dozen times to explain why he would attribute the pancreatic cancer in his two patients to the dust cloud so soon after 9-11. It was as if no one wanted to make the connection; one patient lost his claim despite the doctor’s opinion.

“We’re in this period where no one wants to accept the link,” Hesdorffer observes. Maybe the official denial stems from economics, from a desire to limit the amount of money owed to the thousands who have lost their health. Or maybe it has to do with politics. Admitting a link, as he points out, “would mean that the fallout from 9-11 was a lot bigger than we’d thought.”

What it would mean is that people got cancer from government decisions. From the decision of Whitman to lie about the air quality in Lower Manhattan, which gave the
recovery workers and many other New Yorkers a false sense of security. From the decision
of the White House to put Wall Street ahead of public health, which the EPA inspector general found had influenced all those rosy statements. And from the decision to let workers toil without proper respirators for weeks, or without any respirators at all.

For Gary Acker, now 54 and still undergoing monthly chemical drips to heal his bones, gone are the annual trips hunting for caribou in Canada and fishing for trout in the Adirondacks. Those years in the late ’90s when he threw the javelin and shot put in the New York version of the Olympics seem like an adolescent memory. No longer working at AT&T, he devotes his time to trying to relax, watching mindless sitcoms on TV, anything to make himself laugh. “If I’m laughing, I’m not stressed,” he says. His doctors tell him that no stress means less chance of a cancer relapse.

Last year, Jessy McCarthy, now 48, had to work through his chemotherapy treatment, juggling the 72-hour drips with his job and his son for six months. He didn’t have much choice; otherwise he’d lose his medical benefits. He could never afford the medical bills on his $65,000 salary; some of his medications cost $5,000 a dose. Now in remission, he continues to fix phone lines, though he knows the day will come when he can’t anymore. Already, he has had to call for help on assignments he used to do alone. He also knows, in the back of his mind, that his cancer is the kind that will likely return, and possibly kill him.

Walcott and Vallebuona, both retired from the force because of their cancer, continue to live with the side effects of their treatments—the lost feeling in their hands and feet and the extreme fatigue. While Vallebuona has undergone chemotherapy, radiation, and a stem cell transplant, he still hasn’t been able to beat his lymphoma into remission. They also grapple with what they both like to call “chemo brain.” The
drugs left Walcott, now 42, too incoherent to witness or recall the first time his daughter learned to walk or talk. For Vallebuona, now 41, the littler things seem to escape him, like the weekend plans his wife mentioned earlier in the day. But even their foggy minds have not erased the memories of two planes hitting the World Trade Center on that sunny September morning, when they had woken up healthy and happy to be alive.


The Squatter

Daniel Peckham has a mantra, and it goes like this: Top floor, rear, facing south. Top floor, rear, facing south. Top floor, rear, facing south.
He chants it whenever anyone tries to reason with him about the drawn-out battle with a Chelsea landlord that has sapped every ounce of his psychic energy for the last 29 months, a battle that suggests a level of obstinacy one might expect of a bullheaded building owner, not a rent-regulated apartment dweller. But Peckham is nothing like most New York tenants; he cares more about being right than being comfortable, and feels more strongly about winning his case in court than about living in the lap of luxury.

Take the deal, think many of the neighbors, friends, and even reporters who Peckham has enlisted for support in his fight to be the last tenant living in his Chelsea walk-up—an apartment that, of course, meets his mantra in every respect, and where he has lived for the last dozen years.

Two years ago, his landlord, Larry Tauber—by accounts, neither a sleazy slumlord nor a chummy pushover—offered Peckham $75,000 to leave his $1,007-a-month West 21st Street one-bedroom, so that he could begin a gut renovation of the building to convert it to swanky rentals. Peckham’s refusals led Tauber to up the offer; by this summer, he’d tried to tempt the tenant with an $800-a-month lease governed by rent-stabilized guidelines on a renovated one-bedroom on West 69th Street between Columbus Avenue and Broadway, a five-minute walk away from the apartments of Steven Spielberg and Bruce Willis.

But Peckham kept saying no, and the chanting continued. Top floor, rear, facing south. Top floor, rear, facing south. Top floor, rear, facing south.

“It’s your business,” one of Peckham’s West 20th Street neighbors in a Tauber-owned building told him when they ran into each other the other day, “but if I were you, I wouldn’t be holding out for any southern exposure. If you can get an apartment at a decent rent in a decent building, take it.” Had the neighbor known of the apartment Peckham has refused to take—at a rent less than half what its previous tenant paid—he surely would have shared his shock at Peckham’s seeming greed.

What drives a tenant to fight a landlord making what would appear to be a reasonable relocation offer? Therein lies a baffling story of litigation run amok, of a landlord who has left himself open to harassment charges that could cost him the case, and of a tenant whose passion for winning may have overtaken his sense of reason and compromise. It’s a battle that will have no winners, and may take months to resolve. In the meantime, Daniel Peckham sits alone in an otherwise empty four-story Chelsea brick walk-up, chanting his mantra to anyone who will listen. His audience decreases by the day.

For 29 months, Peckham has lived alone at 244 West 21st Street, amid four floors of vacant and bolted-shut apartments, despite the fact that the structure is set for demolition, already partially ripped apart, with units stripped down to wooden shells.

It has been two years since Peckham began his battle against his landlord, Chelsea Partners, which needs him to leave to carry out its plan to convert the building into luxury rentals. So far he has successfully managed to block those plans, fighting the landlord’s application to end his lease before the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal, which oversees rent stabilization. He has challenged the application at the agency three separate times, accusing his landlord of harassing him out of his home. He has lost all three challenges. Last week, Peckham filed a lawsuit in Manhattan Supreme Court against the agency and Chelsea Partners in a last-ditch effort to reverse his eviction.

But Peckham cannot bring himself to stop playing the role of beleaguered tenant. “I never asked for this,” he repeats, another of his mantras. And some facts do support his version of events as the victim in his lonely battle.

The two combatants suggest a study in stark contrasts. Despite his youthful appearance,
Peckham, 54, suffers from degenerative arthritis. A botched hip replacement has left one leg shorter than the other; he collects $722 a month in disability benefits. Whereas Larry Tauber—the chubby-cheeked face of Chelsea Partners—manages a real estate dynasty of sorts. His family owns 41 buildings in Manhattan, many rent regulated, many on the Upper West Side. He bought the West 21st Street address in June 2000, one of 13 buildings that cost him $13 million. Tauber quickly made plain his plan to turn some of these buildings into market-rate rentals.

But in one sense the two men share an identical view. Each thinks the other is behaving in an unreasonable manner, and negotiating badly.


“Everyone is calling me the Dracula landlord,” Tauber says. “I’m the Dracula landlord for trying to kick this guy out and for a list of bad things he says I did. None of it is true.” Tauber is speaking over the phone, in rapid staccato, a 20-minute, uncensored soliloquy. As he describes the offers he’s made to Peckham for his apartment—the 18 alternatives, the monetary sums—his frustration becomes evident. At first, he’s eager to tell his story, agreeing to meet in person and disclose all the legal paperwork. Two days later, though, he withdraws his cooperation through his attorney, Sherwin Belkin, of the prominent real estate firm of Belkin, Burden, Wenig & Goldman, whose newsletters tout ways for landlords to “recover” rent-regulated buildings.

Before the cone of silence descends, however, Tauber does offer this one-size-fits-all defense. “Press coverage in New York,” he whines, “is always slanted toward the tenant.” That, of course, was before he read this article.

Tauber isn’t without the blemishes that mark the complexions of many New York City landlords. He faces credible harassment complaints from dozens of tenants besides Peckham. In this case, though, Peckham seems more like the exploiter than the exploited. He admits he’s dabbling in a rental poker game of sorts, upping the ante on his landlord, hoping his appeals pay off. His story shows the lengths people will go to keep their rent-stabilized apartments in a city where such units are fast disappearing and such tenants can wield a certain advantage.

Peckham says he’s holding out for the cause, for what he calls “my full rent- stabilized rights.” As he explains it: “Tauber wants to swindle me out of my rent-stabilized rights. My rights are worth a fortune.” But in this high-stakes rental game, as the suit proceeds and the negotiations stall, he stands to lose it all—not only the West 69th Street apartment, but also his own.

If you saw Daniel Peckham out on West 21st Street these days, you might never suspect that he remains a poker play away from losing his home. Neighbors often find him in front of No. 244, tending to a garden of impatiens, trimming morning glories that snake up the facade. He grows tomatoes on the roof and ferns in the window. The homey touches make it easy to forget he lives there alone.

Walk inside, though, and Peckham’s self-inflicted isolation becomes evident. That’s when you spot the seven mailboxes in the vestibule, each labeled “VACANT.” On every floor, the apartment doors are shuttered, some with big metal chains. No loud conversations can be heard, no blaring televisions. An eerie silence pervades the building. Chris Thomas, 38, who has known Peckham since the early 1990s and has recently spent time in his apartment, describes it this way: “It’s scary to live in a building alone. I wouldn’t want to live there all by myself.”

Nor does Peckham. He claims he would gladly lose all the negatives that come with his last-man-standing status—the loneliness (“I try to avoid telling people I live alone because they get uncomfortable and want to leave and I want them to stay”); the spookiness (“I hear a noise and I have to get out of bed and open the door and wait”)—if not for his circumstances. As he tells it, he’s standing firm out of necessity. He insists that he struggles to meet his rent, supplementing his income by teaching yoga classes, part-time. He collects $149 in food stamps to get by. It seems certain he can’t afford New York City’s exorbitant market rents—at least not in his neighborhood, or in the 10-block radius around which he’s organized his daily life.

The brownstone building at 117 W. 69th St., where Peckham’s landlord, Larry Tauber, recently offered to relocate him.
photo: Brian Kennedy

“I’m not losing my rent-stabilized rights,” he says, by way of explanation. “I need them.”

His former neighbors once said the same thing—before they took the compromise offers Peckham has refused. In March 2004, all eight tenants at No. 244 got a letter in the mail from the Manhattan law firm of Belkin, Burden, Wenig & Goldman, which represents Tauber, laying out the landlord’s plan to gut the building, offering alternatives for settlement. Take a $75,000 buyout, the letter proposed, or move to an adjacent Tauber property, where he offered to keep tenants paying their current rent for seven and a half years. After that, the price would follow the market, which at the time was $2,200 a month.


The news came as no surprise to Peckham and his fellow neighbors. Two years earlier, Tauber had begun converting the rent-regulated building next door into luxury rentals. Once, during the construction, contractors managed to bust 13 holes in the supporting wall between the two row houses, shaking tenants in No. 244, sending bricks and plaster into their hallways and homes. Some tenants saw it as a sign of things to come. “I could see straight through the holes to the other building. It was scary and I thought, ‘We’re next,’ ” recalls one former neighbor, who lives in another Tauber building and asked not to be named for fear of recriminations from him. When the letters finally arrived, the tenants—all but Peckham—agreed that they didn’t have much choice. One by one, they took the offers.

Peckham had the opposite response to the proposed settlement. “That offer was a joke,” he insists. That month he filed a harassment complaint against Tauber, which the agency would dismiss. In two follow-up appeals, he also accused his landlord of an “incorrigible pattern of harassment,” to no avail.

Today, Peckham can’t get past the idea that his landlord’s main intention is to make his life miserable. He loves to display piles of pictures to prove his point, and indeed, some do—like the ones of bubbling ceiling paint and water leaks and buckets stationed throughout his bedroom. Over the last 17 months, four Housing Court judges have ordered Tauber to repair his tenant’s ceiling and provide adequate heat and hot water, among other things; collectively, they’ve reduced his rent by 75 percent and fined Tauber $6,000. But other pictures actually hurt Peckham’s cause—like the ones of stacks of cement blocks and metal beams and stairs covered in inches-thick dust. He says they show how bad he’s had it since his building became a construction site in late 2004. He fails to acknowledge that he remains there by choice.

“The stuff Tauber has made me endure should be worth more than he’s offering me,” Peckham says, as he flips through pictures of his landlord. Whenever Tauber inspects the apartment, Peckham snaps a shot of his nemesis as possible future evidence for his court case.

“Here’s a picture of Larry,” he offers, showing Tauber inspecting his bathroom’s faulty toilet. “Here’s another picture of Larry,” Peckham says, referring, as he always does, to his opponent by his first name. He says the picture captures Tauber in mid-sentence. “He’s always saying to me, ‘You should just
take the deal,’ ” Peckham explains.

“All these allegations that I’m harassing him, they’re not true!” Tauber is now exclaiming into the phone. For a good 10 or 15 minutes, he has sounded surprisingly level-headed, even aggrieved. He has calmly laid out his case—that he has offered his tenant numerous deals to end their battle; that the deals exceed what he’s required to give his tenant; yet that his tenant has shifted the conditions and upped the ante so many times he’s at a loss to resolve things outside of court. What finally rattles this smooth demeanor is a question about Peckham’s harassment claims.

“He’s the harasser! I’m telling you the God’s honest truth!” Tauber says with a heavy sigh. “The press likes to make it seem like landlords are evil and greedy Dracula types, and he’s done a good job convincing people of this. But he’s doing it to me. He’s making my life miserable.”

Tauber ticks off his own body of evidence —how Peckham has called city agencies to report building and housing code violations at No. 244 up to 53 times, and how he has used legal means to delay the building’s construction. On this, Tauber must grudgingly acknowledge that Peckham has been effective. Since last November, he has had to stop work because he says he cannot continue to keep gutting the building while Peckham still lives there.

On some level, these protestations of innocence seem like typical landlord bluster. After all, other tenants have also alleged harassment by Tauber. Consider the 11 people who live next door to Peckham, at 246 West 21st Street, in a single-room-occupancy building with collapsing ceilings, moldy bathrooms, and broken electrical outlets. Tenants there have accused Tauber of failing to make repairs too, as well as having made more insidious threats. Their complaints have prompted an ongoing harassment investigation by a city housing agency.

At No. 244, though, Tauber does appear to have made a considerable effort to gain Peckham’s cooperation. He began looking for a suitable apartment for his tenant in the spring of 2004, after the DHCR had ordered the two to settle their dispute. By July, Tauber had shown his tenant four desirable rentals on the Upper West Side.


But alas, all of those apartments happened to face north. Remember the mantra?

Tauber got a hint of just how picky his tenant would prove to be in a July 6 e-mail from Peckham, in which the tenant wrote:

My apartment is top floor, facing south, in the rear, overlooking a huge garden with an open sky, in the most currently desirable neighborhood, accessible to 4 subway lines, which if you ask any real estate salesperson is much more valuable than the north facing ones, with smaller gardens and facing taller buildings that you have shown me.

Over the last two years, Tauber has proposed 18 apartments, mostly uptown, located from West 68th to West 101st streets. Peckham says he has turned them down because he wants to remain in Chelsea. Yet the intransigent tenant has proven inconsistent even on that point; when offered four units on his own block, he has balked, citing the construction at No. 244. He keeps trying to bargain for more, better, and cheaper. There were wagers over a lesser rent ($550 and $700 a month); there were bids over a bigger buyout ($600,000). Once, while negotiating on the West 69th Street apartment, he requested what even he admits was an “over-the-top” wish list, which he laid out in a January 11, 2005, e-mail to Tauber:

Conditions: Rent 700/mo full stabilized rights
Pay for movers
Pay for lawyer
25K stipend

The e-mail went on to demand extensive renovation work, including:

Replace Door with full size door with glass panes from salvage
Through the wall AC at least 8 ft high
Crown molding
24″ Viking Stove
Stack W/D
Cabinets to the Ceiling
Granite counter tops
New deep tub

Tauber shut down negotiations after that e-mail. “This is extortion,” he now says.

Tauber has the law on his side, it seems. Once the DHCR determines a landlord can evict tenants to demolish a building, it gives the landlord the upper hand. That means they don’t have to give tenants substantial relocation packages. Indeed, under an agency formula calculating relocation stipends, Peckham could end up with no money at all, since his monthly rent tops $1,000. Peckham’s lawyer maintains that his client’s disability at least entitles him to another rent-stabilized apartment at the same rent in a nearby area, but that has yet to be proven in court.

In any case, that’s what Tauber has effectively offered, and then some. When he won the right to evict Peckham last winter, he put the West 69th Street apartment back on the table. He thought he would propose a deal too good to reject. Want to move back into your newly rehabbed No. 244 unit under your current rent? Done. Want to get a $15,000 relocation stipend? Done. Want to get a lease governed by rent stabilization? Done, except for granting Peckham’s heirs the right to inherit the apartment, or Peckham the right to have his regulated rent registered with the state agency that governs landlords. Last March, attorneys even drew up an agreement, only to have it fall apart.

“I advised Dan not to sign it,” explains Jack Newton, his lawyer. “I can’t agree to something that doesn’t give Dan his full rights.”

Last week, Peckham found yet another legal venue for his quixotic and perhaps misguided campaign, now suing the DHCR for its failure to investigate his harassment claims, among many other claims. He also sees his case involving the issue of what he calls “phony” demolition—a trend of recent vintage that has gained attention among housing advocates and politicians who argue that landlords are coming up with new ways to remove rent-stabilized tenants from their homes. These tenants’-rights advocates disagree with a 2002 DHCR rule change qualifying internal gutting as a demolition, rather than a razing. “The DHCR is bending over backwards to make this loophole as cheap and as easy as possible for landlords to get rid of rent-regulated tenants,” Newton argues.

If Peckham loses this latest round in court, Tauber says he’ll make no more offers.
“He could end up with nothing,” Tauber says.

Tauber and Peckham will next meet in court on October 23.


Those other 9-11 victims speak out

As the fifth anniversary of 9-11 approaches, the spotlight has finally trained on all the stories about the fallout from the World Trade Center disaster-all the stories about first responders getting sick from the toxic dust, for example. This week’s findings from the Mount Sinai 9-11 study showing that 70 percent of ground zero workers have developed new respiratory illnesses pretty much confirms what activists have long described as a growing health crisis. And that’s just the first responders, of course. Residents, office workers, clean-up workers: These people are suffering from the same litany of symptoms, to little recognition. Today, they seized the spotlight. More than 200 of them gathered across the street from ground zero, in lower Manhattan, where they protested the federal government’s long-standing silence over the health effects of 9-11.

“I’m one of the forgotten victims!” shouted Elaine Guillermo, standing on a makeshift stage, as the 250-strong crowd roared. She launched into a raucous chant-“What do we want? Health care! When do we want it? Now!”-as throngs of people packed themselves into an area cordoned off by police barricades. They held up banners and signs that read “Protect our health compensation now” and “Health care not toxic air.” Some displayed their messages in Chinese, others in Spanish. They listened as speakers, one by one, took to the microphone to demand the same coverage from the federal government that some first responders already receive: medical monitoring and, for those who develop pollution-related diseases, treatment.

“We’re here to demand the rebuilding of New York,” said Stan Mark, of the Beyond Ground Zero network, which organized the protest, “and that has to start with the rebuilding of the lives of residents, office workers, and all who are affected by 9-11.”

The BGZ network, as it’s known, formed in the days and weeks following September 11 by largely poor, immigrant residents and workers in lower Manhattan and Chinatown. Even then, says Yuichi Tamano, of the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops, one of the groups behind the BGZ network, “We found out that people were sick,” suffering an intractable cough, developing strange skin rashes, battling traumatic stress. Back in May 2002, the network held a town-hall meeting for poor, immigrant residents and workers to demand medical monitoring and treatment for their 9-11-related illnesses. Today, they’re still making the demand.

“We want no more discrimination,” Tamano said, standing before a thicket of TV cameras and microphones. These 9-11 victims are undocumented and uninsured; in short, they are invisible. “We want the government to admit its responsibility,” he added, “and to provide health care to all those affected.”

So does Lucelly Gil, one of thousands of immigrants who cleaned up the downtown skyscrapers after 9-11. Short and squat, Gil, 50, wore a giant, white Manhattan T-shirt over a button down blouse. Speaking in Spanish through an interpreter, she explained that she spent every day, for six straight months, breathing in the toxic dust, without a mask, without gloves, as she wiped down apartments and offices near ground zero. Within months, she began to notice symptoms. Her ears got clogged, she got sinus infections. Eventually, she was diagnosed with pulmonary disorders, attributed to 9-11.

“I helped to clean this area,” Gil said, motioning to the buildings towering above her, “and now I should be helped.” She has no health insurance, and the only care she can get is through a tiny 9-11 screening program for uninsured people in Chinatown and other nearby neighborhoods, at Bellevue Hospital. It treats 500 people, with another 700 on a waiting list. Yesterday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the city would fund $16 million over five years to expand the program-the first government funds earmarked for any treatment for residents, office workers, and clean-up workers. It’s not nearly enough, rally organizers pointed out.

“I am here today because I want the government to know that I helped after 9-11,” Gil observed. “Now, the government should help us.”