Brenda Berkman and Regina Wilson are two of the firefighters who survived the World Trade Center rescue efforts in which 343 FDNY members were killed, then spent months working at the site in the search for remains and attending countless funerals for their colleagues.
As grueling as that period was for them, both emotionally and laboring in a toxic atmosphere amid ruins that included intermittent fires, literally shaky ground and exposed metal that Mr. Berkman a decade after recalled that 9/11 firefighters frequently cut themselves on, both said in phone interviews April 21 that coping with the coronavirus has been a more-taxing ordeal mentally. Part of the reason for that—at least in the case of Ms. Berkman—is the impact that months on the pile had on her health, but both said that as horrifying as the massive loss of life due to the Trade Center attacks was, the deaths came within a single day, and they were not preoccupied in the months after by fears of additional terrorist attacks.
In contrast, the toll taken by COVID-19—seven rough days in mid-April produced nearly twice as many deaths as the 2,753 in New York on 9/11—has been ongoing, and the health risks are not confined to a pocket of lower Manhattan while most of the city was able to resume operations within a week.
For several days starting with the 9/11 rescue attempts, Ms. Wilson said regarding the lack of masks for firefighters, "I had no protection. I had to wash my eyes out at the end of every shift."
Concerns Then Didn't Follow Her Home
But, she said, she wasn't consumed by the thought of continuing danger, or concerned when she completed her shifts that she might be bringing a communicable disease back to her neighborhood.
"Once I washed up and changed and went home, it's not like I was worried," said Firefighter Wilson, a 21-year FDNY veteran who is assigned to Engine Co. 219 near the Barclays Center but for the past year has been detailed to the Office of Emergency Management, with her role there rapidly expanded over the past month. She is helping health-care providers and Emergency Medical Technicians who don't want to go home for fear of infecting family members find places to sleep, doing the same for patients treated for COVID-19 who have recently been discharged from area hospitals, and monitoring the volunteer center.
Ms. Berkman, who retired from the FDNY as a Captain in 2006, has an added concern. "A lot of the people who went through 9/11 are in those pre-existing 9/11 conditions both because of age and those effects of 9/11," she said.
She declined to give her age, but she was the lead plaintiff among the women who took the 1978 physical exam for Firefighter and successfully sued the city on the grounds that it wasn't sufficiently job-related, paving the way for her to be among the class of 41 women who integrated the firefighting force in 1982.
Asked whether she had her lungs checked out at the time she retired, Ms. Berkman said she had. She offered no details, but remarked, "A lot of people who responded down there on 9/11 and were there for the next 10 months had a lot of health damage and are vulnerable" to the coronavirus.
'Still Dealing With 9/11'
She said, with characteristically wry humor, "I don't think I've washed my hands so much in my life" as she has in recent weeks. More somberly, she noted, "I've seen guys that I worked with, like Al Petrocelli Sr., who have succumbed to COVID."
Firefighter Wilson said, "We're still dealing with 9/11 deaths even to this day," referring to the slower-but-steady loss of colleagues in recent years to cancers that were traceable to the months spent working at the Trade Center site but sometimes did not show up for more than a decade.
After 9/11, she said, the primary concern besides mourning the firefighters who died during the rescue efforts was uneasiness about the air quality at the site, where she continued working through December 2001. But it was easier to decompress in those days, she said.
"Now," Ms. Wilson continued, "it's like you really don't have time to think, because it's still going on. You're worried about yourself, your family. It's everywhere: your neighbors can be affected. Everybody is a part of it—it feels like you have so many more people to take care of."
And that forces her to be particularly vigilant about her routines, not only at work but when she returns home.
"It's why I keep my face-mask on today," she said. "When I'm [leaving the job], I have duplicate masks. The only time I don't wear masks is when I'm sitting in my car. And I wash down the dashboard."
'Worry Every Waking Moment'
When she arrives at her home, Firefighter Wilson continued, "Now I've gotta strip at the door, wash my clothing, shower. Every single waking moment you have to worry about your health."
Ms. Berkman said one of the biggest contrasts between the aftermath of 9/11 and now concerns the greater role—and accompanying risk—played by health-care workers. Referring to the scene at Bellevue Hospital nearly 19 years ago after the Twin Towers imploded, she recalled, "you had all this hospital staff outside," waiting for casualties to be brought in, except there were relatively few people in need of emergency medical attention. "People lined up by the thousands to donate blood, and very little of that was needed for the 9/11 victims.
"Now," she continued, "that blood is very much needed," but there has been a shortage of donors because people fear going out to provide it while exposing themselves to possible infection.
But where the medical professionals had a somewhat-limited role in treating 9/11 victims in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist strikes, Ms. Berkman said, "This situation is different. That group is overwhelmed and needs all of our help, and is most at risk because of all their exposures. They're really demonstrating their heroism, as are all the first-responders and the other essential workers."
And the definition of "essential" has expanded, she said, to include people not previously placed in that category: postal workers, grocery clerks, delivery people, plumbers.
Helping, From a Distance
Ms. Berkman in retirement became an artist whose lithographs—many with 9/11 themes—have been exhibited, and increased her activism in the Presbyterian Church. Recently, she said, "I've been trying to advise the Presbytery on how to deal with [the virus]. I sit on the board of the New York Disaster Interfaith Services," which assists people in recovering from cataclysmic events, seeking to offer social services and social justice "in a time of no contact."
But, she said, "We don't really know anything about the virus, and that uncertainty really affects people's mental states." It is why, Ms. Berkman said, she has hesitated about being involved in the distribution of masks or doing public education before a live audience, even as "I've tried to make use of my emergency training and my experiences to help prepare people for what may be coming."
The uncertainties about infection, she said, have parallels with another outbreak that occurred during her early years as a Firefighter in the 1980s: the AIDS crisis. In those days, she said, there was no device that could be used to push oxygen into the system of someone who had stopped breathing, and less-senior firefighters like herself "were always the people who were doing the mouth-to-mouth."
Ms. Wilson, who was the first female president of the Vulcan Society of black firefighters, said that within the city, "The African-American community has been hit very hard" by the coronavirus. The Vulcans and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams have been distributing masks in housing projects.
But where her leadership of the Vulcans and singing engagements at both Fire Department ceremonies and sports events in the past required that "I run around a lot," recently the toll taken by her job has cut down on after-work activities.
'Come Home for Solace'
"This has given me the opportunity to come home and have some solace," Firefighter Wilson said. That's something she has needed, she said, because the continuing stream of deaths "has hurt more" than the single day of loss on 9/11 when "you couldn't process that many people dying. There were all the funerals to go to and the burials, but after that first day you weren't seeing planes hit the buildings."
With COVID-19, she continued, "It's like you're reliving this every day. It's hard to process because you still don't know when it's going to end."
Ms. Berkman said one of the striking elements of the crisis was its greater impact on the minority community in the city—a point Governor Cuomo would reinforce the following day when he pointed out that asthma and respiratory illnesses were three times higher among African-Americans, and that one reason might be that plants that contribute to air pollution are more likely to be based in poorer minority neighborhoods.
"I think what people are seeing," she said, "is the tremendous fault lines in our society that were always there but have really been exposed during the pandemic. Are populations that were already struggling going to fall even further behind because of job loss and no classroom education" at a time when in many low-income homes there still isn't access to computers or social media.
And, she went on, "You've got the people, from group homes for the disabled to public housing, [who] don't have the luxury of social distancing."
At the same time, though, she noted, "The food banks are just stressed. People who never expected that they would be down to their last dollar are now showing up."
Nourished by Public Support
Returning to the work being done by hospital workers and first-responders, Ms. Berkman said she hoped there would be a continuing outpouring of support for their efforts even as the crisis subsides, as occurred as the city began to recover nearly two decades ago.
"They helped the Fire Department after 9/11," she said. "Their support really cheered and encouraged people in the firehouses in recovering after 9/11. I think we have to recognize that like after 9/11, community-wide support is a way that we can not only diminish the spread of the virus but encourage the people who are doing the life-saving work" by using advocacy to get them more personal protective equipment and some relief from overwork.
Strengthening that sense of community, at a time when for the average person staying at home, "not much is being asked of us," Ms. Berkman said, is particularly important because "I don't think we'll come out of this for a long time."
Firefighter Wilson was less pessimistic, saying she was grateful that being detailed to OEM had offered her "the perspective to see everything that goes on in the city, as opposed to just my neighborhood area."
She also has fewer health concerns than Ms. Berkman, saying that despite the three-plus months she spent at The Pile in the wake of 9/11, "I don't have any symptoms [to indicate] I have lung damage.
"But," she continued, "you don't know what you don't know."
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