New York, NY – September 11, 2001 was devastating to the entire nation — but even more so for the workers who immediately rushed to Ground Zero in the aftermath of the attack on America. Among them, Firefighters, Police Officers, EMS, and Ironworkers readily come to mind. But Transport Workers Union [TWU] members actually responded in the largest numbers in the first few days. Many ultimately became sick. Still, they are hardly recognized for the heroic work they performed.
As Mario Galvet, a member of TWU Local 100’s Executive Board representing electrical equipment maintainers notes, transit workers have not been included in Lower Manhattan’s 9/11 Museum.
Members of TWU Local 100 working for MTA/NYC Transit now number between 43,000 to 44,000. But in 2001, Galvet says, they hovered around 35,000.
“Roughly 10-percent of the entire available workforce was summoned to what, in time, became known as Ground Zero,” he says. “Right where the action was — right where the buildings collapsed — right where all the wreckage was to that exact spot — within hours of the collapse.”
Galvet further explains that not only were TWU workers there in the greatest numbers — “Hundreds of guys who were operating heavy machinery” — they were the only ones with the equipment necessary to cope with the magnitude of destruction — heavy-duty cranes, “some of them with a capacity of 40 tons or greater,” weighty forklifts “capable of picking up a large vehicle” and front loaders both large and small.
“And grapplers” he says, “like a backhoe, but with a claw — lots of those.”
Most worked in the Track and Structure departments before the attack — “people who had expertise in cutting metal, removing debris and who had the necessary equipment to do it.”
“All of it brought in literally overnight using barges,” Galvet says. “The barges were loaded with huge cranes and were ferried down to lower Manhattan. Also ordered down to the area in large numbers were our Cleaners — many of them women who were told to clean the extensively damaged subway stations — generally without approved respirators. The big response was us — period.”
It became very clear early on that there was little Police Officers could do after the first few hours. Firefighters, as well, had limited work because there was no one left to rescue, making the search for remains their main duty.
As far as the number of transit worker serious illnesses and deaths resulting from working at Ground Zero, Galvet says “that is an unknown number.” However, referencing the “Above and Below” documentary that aired on public television a year after 9/11, Galvet puts the grim figure at between 350 and 400 TWU members — more than 10 percent of those sent to Ground Zero.
Attaining compensation for 9/11-related illnesses has not been easy for Transit workers, Galvet says. “In 2002, the then union leadership asked the Transit Authority for any documentation that would help establish forevermore who [of our membership] was down there. The TA, keenly aware that something like that could lead one day in the future to some sort of legal claims, resisted it for almost a year. Then, with the help of then Senator Hillary Clinton [the TA was] strong-armed into coughing up a list.”
However, Galvet says the list is actually incomplete and represents “roughly half of everyone who was down there.”
“It’s a list with about 2,100 names on it,” he says. “The TA made it easy for themselves — they just got all the managers to compile the names of all of their employees whose pay was reimbursed by FEMA for their time working on rescue and recovery efforts regardless of in what capacity they were serving. Whether it was pushing a broom, operating heavy machinery, ferrying people back and forth in buses — whatever the hell they were doing and that the federal government felt that it was warranted reimbursing the MTA for their pay. Thus, it was not impactful on the MTA’s budget, because the feds picked up the bill. We have possession of that list, yours truly forwarded it to the special master of the Victim’s Compensation Fund, which is the new part of the Justice Department that was created by the Zadroga Act. It’s in charge of all things compensation for being down there. The hard copy was furnished to the Justice Department. If a member of ours is on it, and is making a claim for compensation, it is the union’s position that a letter, generated by us, signed by our local president, referencing what page on that document they’re on, it’s our position that said letter is a proof of presence document that should stand by itself.”
The union, according to Galvet has gotten some pushback from the Justice Department.
“They’ve never gone on record as to why they don’t feel it should stand by itself, and have insisted that our members get other testamentary letters — affidavits, photos – anything else that would bolster the claim of having been down there,” he says. “Even with all this required evidence in hand, those seeking compensation still have to have a ‘certified illness.’ Certified only by the health screening programs which are funded by the VCF — and that would be the folks at Mount Sinai and about half a dozen others in the Tri-State Area that likewise screen people.”
If a worker has qualified as having a 9/11-related illness, they can then make a claim on their own or seek out a law firm that handles those claims, according to Galvet. But the union doesn’t advise it.
“The law limits the law firm to roughly 10-percent of any claim that is awarded, so many firms stopped handling those cases,” he says. “Two who stuck with it are Kreindler & Kreindler LLP and Barasch McGarry.”
According to Galvet, of the original list of 2,100 names updated in 2015 — about 10-percent were shown to be “deceased.”
“We don’t know of what,” he says, “but that was pretty telling. There are a whole lot of claims that could have been made that simply will not be because it’s a monumental task to try to assemble proof of presence documentation and all the rest. The claims are very difficult when you’re alive and well enough to fill stuff out — much less dead and have a helpless elderly widow trying to figure it all out.”