A 9/11 First Responder Develops Asthma and Fragrance Sensitivity


The following account from Bonnie Giebfried is a compilation of her story as it appears in my 2008 book Amputated Lives: Coping with Chemical Sensitivity and my 2006 documentary The Toxic Clouds of 9/11: A Looming Health Disaster.


In September of 2001, I was working as an EMT in the 9-1-1 system. After the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, we were one of the first units into the South Tower, and we got three individuals out of that building.

After we came out of the towers, we were watching in horror as people were jumping from the towers to escape the fire. The last thing I remember seeing was a helicopter that was trying to land on top of one of the towers to get people off the tower. Then I remember hearing someone say it was going to blow, and at that point, there was a humongous fire ball. It looked like a meteor was coming at us.

The fireball hit one side of the building where we had taken refuge and brought down the facade with the tremendous force of the explosion. And the fireball was accompanied by a massive amount of debriscars, trees, people. Whatever the debris could pick up, it picked up, and it buried thirty of us alive with a lot of burning materials around us. There was just so much stuff everywhere. We tried so desperately to get out the way we came in, but the pile of debris was worse than concrete. You couldn’t even budge it, so we started banging on the windows to try to break them. But the windows are heavily reinforced in buildings down there, like four thick panes. The air was getting so thin because everything was burning, superheated, and this was all blocking our access out. I could hear my heart beating, and people were stopping breathing. At that point, I said, “God, take care of my friends and my family” and closed my eyes and expected to die. Then I heard pop, pop, pop because Lieutenant Gwinn, a police officer who was with us, succeeded in shooting out the windows, which seemed like a miracle.

I had never had asthma before 9/11, but by the end of the day I had had three bad asthma attacks. I finally got treatment during the second asthma attack because my chest was killing me. And that feeling of not being able to catch your breath, not being able to fill your lungs, it’s such a horrible, horrible feeling. It feels like someone’s crushing your chest, sucking everything out of you.

Before 9/11 I was in great health. I was playing on three soccer teams, three softball teams, a racquet ball league, a paddle ball league. I was fishing, hiking, climbing mountains. In fact, just before 9/11 I had climbed my first 13,000-foot peak in Colorado, and I was aspiring to climb the 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado. I can’t even climb up stairs now. I just can’t catch my breath. I have been debilitated, diminished by the toxic exposures I encountered on 9/11. My vocal chords got burnt. My nasal passages will never be the same. I have chronic sinusitis, bronchitis, asthma. I just got over having pneumonia for the third time. Never had pneumonia before 9/11. Now my doctors are concerned about my heart because your heart enlarges to pump more blood when you have an asthma attack..

I was 37 when the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center occurred and was looking forward to a full and productive life. Now I’m 41 years old, but I feel like a 90-year-old. My muscles are atrophying. Anytime that the media is around they ask, “Well, how can you attribute this to 9/11?” Sorry, my friend and co-worker Tim Keller was less than a foot from me. Tim Keller is dead. Felix Hernandez who was working with us that day, he’s dead. They weren’t old individuals; Tim was 41, and Felix was only 36. They’re dead. They’re not coming back.

The chronic health problems I have developed because of everything I breathed in on 9/11 have made it impossible for me to continue my work as an EMT, and that has been a big loss in my life because it was a profession I loved. I’m also struggling financially now. I was making sixty grand or better before 9/11. Now I’m sixty grand in the hole.

Since 9/11, I’ve become very sensitive to various chemicals that never used to bother me, so I have to be really careful what I expose myself to. The other night I went out for Japanese food, which is one of my favorite things to do because I love Japanese food. I was having a good time with my friends when this guy came in who was wearing a lot of cologne and my throat started closing up and I began to get chest pains. So I just had to leave the restaurant, which was really disappointing. On other occasions, perfume exposure in a restaurant has caused me to become nauseated or to have a seizure. People don’t realize that there’s more involved with the health problems we developed at Ground Zero than just the physical injury, the respiratory injury, the psychological problems. The multiple chemical sensitivity issues that have come from 9/11 have not been addressed.

I can’t do normal, everyday things because of my chemical sensitivity. I really have to police myself to make sure that I’m not going to be exposed to, “Oh, my God, gas fumes.” The propane for the barbeque, household cleaners, Oh, my God, you just might just as well pack me up at that point and just send me to the hospital.

It’s torture. You know, some days you wish you’d died that day because living–I don’t call this living. Part of me died 9/11. I will never get that back, and I’ve been existing day in, day out.