John Sferazo, an ironworker who was a 9/11 First Responder and can no longer tolerate fragrances and other toxic chemicals

 

John’s story appears in my 2008 book Amputated Lives: Coping with Chemical Sensitivity.

I spent much of my earlier years in the Big Woods of northwestern Maine and the Adirondack Mountains of New York. It was easy to love the outdoors because this was where I found solace and serenity. Hunting, fishing, trapping, hiking, and camping came easy to me and became my truest passion. I was raised to respect all our Great Spirit created and to only take what you need from Mother Earth and always give back to her. She is there to nurture you if you understand a simpler life style. I was very fortunate to have a Native American influence in my upbringing, and I give thanks for this. As time passed and I grew older, however, I left this simple life style in Maine and moved to New York, where I started a new life as a union ironworker. I helped build New York City skyscrapers; this became my new life. I spent much of my earlier years in the Big Woods of northwestern Maine and the Adirondack Mountains of New York. It was easy to love the outdoors because this was where I found solace and serenity. Hunting, fishing, trapping, hiking, and camping came easy to me and became my truest passion. I was raised to respect all our Great Spirit created and to only take what you need from Mother Earth and always give back to her. She is there to nurture you if you understand a simpler life style. I was very fortunate to have a Native American influence in my upbringing, and I give thanks for this. As time passed and I grew older, however, I left this simple life style in Maine and moved to New York, where I started a new life as a union ironworker. I helped build New York City skyscrapers; this became my new life.

Then the terrorist attacks happened, changing my life forever. My career as an ironworker was soon to be over because my physical condition changed so dramatically, in such a short time. I had formerly been healthy except for a back injury and was proud of not missing any time from work except in an emergency. That all changed with 9/11. By early 2002, I was missing more and more days at work. By the time I left my job on August 1, 2004, my new medical ailments had forced me to miss over a hundred days of work. 

On the morning of 9/11, I was working for a construction outfit on a rehabilitation project on the Marine Park Bridge, which connects Long Island to Rockaway. I was working directly over the water, and of course sound carries very well when there are no obstructions blocking it. To this day, I can still hear the rumbling of the first tower as it collapsed. Being ironworkers in the construction field, where every day you face danger, my fellow workers and I knew we had to go to the World Trade Center site and do whatever we could to help. Ironworkers not only build these structures, we also take them down. This job had our name on it and was what we were used to doing. As everyone else was running from this tragedy, we rushed in to help our fellow man. I will always remember the sight of all of us running to answer a beckoning call from Lady Liberty herself in the harbor nearby. It made me proud to be an American––courage runs in our blood. 

We mobilized our equipment, trying to be sure to take all we would need for what might lie ahead as we waited for permission to enter this disaster zone. Early on the morning of September 12, we finally received word to enter Manhattan through the Battery Tunnel. It had taken all night for the city’s structural engineers to verify the tunnel’s capacity to support our passage with all the heavy equipment we were bringing with us. A police escort was waiting for us to arrive at the entrance to the tunnel, where we joined with various police and fire department units that were also heading to Ground Zero with all their equipment. 

Some things in life never leave you, and most of what I witnessed in those days after the terrorist attack will forever remain embedded in my memory. Those memories are so intense that I can still smell that smell of death and can still hear the sound of the sirens ringing in my ears. I can see the fighter jets making a flyover, the helicopters hovering overhead, and the unbelievable destruction all around us. After we entered West Street, we started coming to grips with the reality of everything we were seeing. Some of us got out of our vehicles and kneeled on the sidewalk next to the trucks to say a fast prayer and make the sign of the cross. 

Backing our tractor-trailer trucks up to the first piece of blocking debris in this huge quagmire of wreckage, we started using hydraulically operated booms to clear the streets leading to Ground Zero. We moved wrecked vehicles of all types and sizes, chunks of concrete and iron locked together, and pieces of rebar and wire that were tangled together. As I was working, I suddenly saw right in front of me the very piece of reality that had caused this massive heap of debris––a fragment of an airplane. I wept in silence as I retrieved it and walked up to a policeman to ask him what to do with it. I knew there would be time to think about this at some later point, but right now I knew there could be some people who were still alive trapped in this huge pile of rubble. The very last thing on your mind at a time like this is your own safety because all around you is reality the likes of which you have never experienced before.

We cleared the streets up to a flooded location that was very close to where the South Tower had been. There was a small pool there because right after the attack the New York Fire Department had been instructed to spray water on the cooling tank below the South Tower to keep it from overheating and possibly exploding. At first, we had no idea that we were looking at a large pool of water because the surface was covered with what looked like oatmeal. This was the powdery remnants of various construction materials. To this day, we have no idea what toxic chemicals we may have absorbed through our skin when we waded through pools of water like this. 

All around us a thick cloud of fine fibers and particles was floating in the air. It was so thick that you could almost cut it with a knife. When there were slight gusts of wind, an even thicker cloud of dust would float by and engulf you, causing you to tear-up and choke uncontrollably. We kept coughing out chunks of debris and dust that we couldn’t avoid breathing in or swallowing. 

After clearing West Street as far as that new pond on that first day we were there, we had to wait for our oxygen tanks to be delivered so that we could start cutting up the iron beams with our acetylene torches. In the meantime, a bucket brigade started moving debris off the pile. I helped do this for a while until I saw a police officer with a search-and-rescue dog. Since I had been trained and certified in wild land search-and-rescue by the NYC Department of Environmental Conservation, I asked the policeman if I could accompany him and his dog. Having been on the gymnastic team and the track team in high school, I was very agile and could follow the dog into the deep holes that he entered. Wherever there was a hollow in this immense pile, that was where this dog would nose around. 

Sometimes the dog and I went down several floors below street level, almost like we were exploring some dark cave. I remember that one time I had to lie down with my back against the web of a column that was now lying flat in this pile and use the column flange overhead to guide me as I followed the dog. As I worked myself further and further down into this debris, with only a small flashlight to guide me, I had to pull myself over pieces of electrical conduit and pipes. Every now and then I would become entangled in something. I kept thinking that the wreckage above me might collapse on top of me at any moment. At least during the daytime, I could see a little light at the end of the “tunnels” I had climbed into, but at night I didn’t even have that to guide me in retracing my steps and had to rely solely on my flashlight. 

I worked with the policeman and his dog for only six or seven hours, but it seemed like a lifetime. When the dog found what he was after, he lay down next to it and looked at me or barked. The worse thing this dog found was what was left of a man’s head, and I could only tell that when I put the light on it. I had to carry it out of the pile to hand it over to a group collecting human remains, and I still have nightmares about carrying that piece of a man’s head. I doubt if those dreams will ever  leave me, and thinking about that horrible experience brings tears to my eyes to this day. The things we witnessed and the experiences we endured have left us with mental scarring. I had problems defusing what I saw at Ground Zero, so I went to a trauma counselor for help. I was taught how to focus on this horrible event and the nightmares that plague me and make them turn out better and more acceptable in my imagination, but it took me a long time to learn how to do that. Like so many other First Responders, in addition to major respiratory problems, I suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). I pray that this PTSD will someday go away, but I don’t know if it will. 

In several spots we were working, the dog and I were inhaling a green smoke. Later, I heard that the green smoke came predominately from burning computer screens. With all the toxins and chemicals on that burning pile, we wonder what we have inside us at this point. 

After we had worked at Ground Zero for several days, we were sent back to our job on the Marine Park Bridge. But me and several other guys kept going back to the Trade Center site at night. And of course, the cops and the firemen loved to have us ironworkers there, so they didn’t stop us from going into the site. We would work next to guys who were getting paid because this was their job. We weren’t getting paid; we were there as volunteers, utilizing our capacity as ironworkers to cut up the enormous iron beams and columns, all the massive structures that were still there. 

I knew something was wrong with my health even while I was still working at the World Trade Center. I had what most doctors called a WTC cough. Sometimes I would cough up sputum that was grey and blackish. Sometimes there was even blood mixed in, depending upon how hard I was coughing or what I had been exposed to. I had no respiratory problems prior to 9/11; I could even run a mile in five minutes and thirty seconds when I was on my high school track team. Then, after breathing in all that toxic dust, I started getting repeated lung infections and pneumonia. Now I have reactive airway disease and what they call COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. My other health issues include gastroesophageal reflux, chronic sinusitis, chronic breathing problems, and an extreme sleep apnea. I was recently told that my labored breathing is caused not just by lung damage from all the toxins I was exposed to but also by the stomach acid that comes up in my throat and then gets inside my lungs. Given all these health problems, I don’t know if I can ever hold any kind of a real job now.  

I was in such good shape prior to 9/11. I could climb columns––that was part of my life when I was building skyscrapers. You have to have a high upper-body ratio to your mass weight to be able to pull yourself up a column and to do that continually, up repeated floors, and I had no problem doing that. Today I don’t even think about going up the stairs that are set on a job site to get to the upper elevations. 

Since 9/11, the smell of gasoline and diesel fuel bothers me so much that I don’t fuel my own vehicles. I don’t even want that stuff on my hands because of the odor. Being around the job sites and being around the smell of the diesel and gasoline, I was constantly getting problems with my throat. I would wind up going hoarse, and I would lose my voice. I would go from a sore throat to a chest infection and then some-times I would get pneumonia, and this had never ever happened to me before in my life. 

Now I get headaches and burning in my lungs when I smell cigarette smoke, even though I used to work all the time in an environment in which you would smell welders burning welding wire or burners cutting through iron. Since 9/11, the smell of smoke sometimes makes me gag or feel like throwing up. I can’t use cologne or aftershave. I can’t take that smell; it causes a burning feeling inside my nostrils. I notice now that some types of cologne have a very, very strong, pungent odor to them. Wherever I smell that kind of smell, I just have to get away from it. 

Before 9/11, I had an excellent job as a construction ironworker. It was challenging and kept my life interesting. You make an awful lot of friends as an ironworker, working outside with so many different trades. I made very decent money before I had to stop working in August of 2004. Now what I used to make in a day, I have to live on for a week. Currently, I’m only getting workers’ compensation at $400 a week, which doesn’t go very far. If my wife wasn’t helping to support me, I honestly don’t know what position I’d be in. 

Before the World Trade Center attack, I worked every single day and hour I could. I did all the overtime I could because I was paying child support for three children from my first marriage. But then after 9/11, I kept getting sick and would be out of work for several days at a time, so I wasn’t able to earn what I used to. Eventually I had to give up working altogether. 

There are thousands of  people like me who became sick because of their 9/11 exposures, and they are falling through the cracks. They’re not being given what’s justly due them as far as workers’ compensation, Social Security, and other benefits are concerned. As I’ve said in Washington, D.C., on several occasions, I feel like government officials are telling me that I’m expendable. Once I’m a liability, I’m no longer needed. They said they would never forget 9/11, but they have forgotten so many people like me who have become sick after 9/11. When the insurance companies do not want to pay their obligations and your government tries to sweep you under the rug, then it is only the strong and determined who continue to fight. I used to believe in my government, but now I am sorry to say that trust is gone.

We’ve become different people since 9/11. A lot of us, we explain it sometimes by saying that if you were dead it would have been a final saving grace in some respects but being left alive and symptomatic from what you experienced leaves you a hollow shell of an individual and you feel that way because it’s not the same you.