Anthony DePalma has an interesting analysis of the 10,000 claims against New York City in the aftermath of 9/11. The city has reviewed the claims submitted by people involved in the immediate aftermath and clean up. As many as 30 percent of the claimants are suffering from nothing more than a runny nose or cough. In over 300 of the records, there was no evidence of any illness at all. What's going on?
Nearly seven years after the twin towers collapsed, we are not even close to resolving the fate of the 40,000 individuals who rushed in to help. A quarter of the rescuers have filed claims, but it turns out that many of the filings are incomplete. Alvin Hellerstein, the U. S. District Court judge overseeing the claims, has asked for detailed medical records on all claimants going back to 1995. At this point, literally thousands of documents are missing.
Attorneys for the claimants admit that nearly a third of the filings involve minor or even non-existent problems. But they defend the submissions as a necessary hedge against future illness: even though there are no major symptoms today, debilitating illnesses related to the clean up may develop sometime down the road. The attorneys say that New York law allows a suit if the claimant has "a rational basis" for their fear. Heck, under that standard every single person involved in the clean up could file a claim.
Some of the ailments listed bear no obvious connection to the events of 9/11: deviated septum, multiple sclerosis, high blood sugar, and Bell's Palsy. The attorneys concede that these problems are not likely related in any way to 9/11 and will be dropped. But then again, maybe there was something in the dust...
Second Thoughts in Catastrophic Moments?
New York City is struggling with a monumental liability in the aftermath of 9/11. As a result of the failure to require rescuers to wear breathing masks (remember Rudy Giuliani's maskless photo op on a pile of rubble?), the city faces charges of negligence that may exceed $1 billion. From day one there have been complex problems in establishing a relationship between 9/11 and subsequent illnesses; these problems are now likely to stretch more than a decade beyond the event itself.
My concerns are not so much retrospective - the individual claims stemming from 9/11 will be determined on a grueling, case-by-case basis. But what happens the next time catastrophe strikes - be it terrorist attack, earth quake, hurricane or meteor from outer space? Humans tend to respond instinctually, rushing in to help those in need. The events of 9/11 have created a cloud of doubt as thick as the one raised by the collapsing towers. Going forward, rescuers may and perhaps should ask themselves, "Will I be protected? Will my family be provided for if my rescue work harms me? Have the people in control - even in the context of unimaginable disaster - set up reasonable risk parameters for my entering the damaged area?"
My guess is that we have learned a few things about risk management in the months and years following 9/11, but we still fall far short of readiness. One thing is certain: we cannot have first responders worried about their own health and the well-being of their families. Yes, "fools rush in where angels fear to tread." But rational human beings (some politicians excluded?) are not fools. We have all seen the inordinate delays, the complex arguments and the sheer passage of time as the legal system struggles with compensability for 9/11 rescuers. Setting aside the marginal claims, which probably deserve their current fate, the legal system must be able to protect courageous responders in a timely manner. Someday, alas, they will be needed again.