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New York City Cleaner Diagnosed with Cancer 15 Years After 9-11 Attacks

Sep 21, 2016

A female cleaner who was on Maiden Lane in lower Manhattan on the morning of the terrorist attacks was recently diagnosed with cancer, 15 years later.

She was in an inner stairwell in a building near the towers and did not hear the first jet slam into the north tower of the World Trade Center. She did witness the crash into the south tower and the fall of both towers. "I was screaming," she said, "screaming 'We are going to die,' the stuff was crashing on the window, probably it was pieces of bodies and planes and building, and so many papers, papers ..." according to The Guardian.

Office workers came in droves to the building she was in and many were covered in ash and soot. The cleaner, now 52, was distributing small towels and paper facemasks; she help some people clean up. Staff began leaving and, "In one hour, the building was empty," she told The Guardian.

She and a few other cleaning staff were asked to stay on to clean up by their boss. She says that she did not return home or sleep for the next two and a-half days. In the time she cleaned, she said, she did not have a mask for herself and did not have access to a shower or clean clothes. Although soldiers who were stationed on the street outside gave her food, she was covered in dust, which filled her mouth and throat. "It was disgusting," she said. "I looked like a ghost. I was gray from head to foot," she said, The Guardian reported. She took one day off before returning to work.

Just months ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer and also was diagnosed with a spot on her lung. This, even though she had an excellent health history, no record of cancer in her family, and never smoked. Two weeks ago she told The Guardian that she underwent a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction and was back at work.

The woman is just one of many workers who became sickened following the attacks and has been certified as sick by the federal World Trade Center (WTC) Health Program, created by the federal government in 2011. She said she sometimes still wheezes and, "In 2003, I got a painful cough.... I would cough so violently, like an old lady."

In 2001, government officials insisted the air in lower Manhattan was safe.

Meanwhile, the woman's company put her on night shifts and she was left to work, for the most part, alone. She asked her union if they could arrange for her to work days. She told the union that was traumatized by her experiences after the attacks. "A guy there told me, 'Oh, that 9/11 bullshit – you're lucky to have a job,'" she told The Guardian. "I had to carry on working nights."

Some 2,977 people were killed in the terrorist attacks. Newsday reported that, according to advocates and experts, the number of people who die from a 9/11-related health condition will ultimately exceed the number who died that day. In fact, in the past two years, alone, the number of 9/11-linked cancers has tripled to 5,441. Medical researchers say that, since cancers and diseases of the immune system take years to develop, even more cases are expected in the future.

"They told us back then in 2001 that if there were going to be problems, it was going to happen 10 to 15 years after the fact," a WTC Health Program enrollee told Newsday. "Now it is happening. These are the lingering effects of 9/11." The enrollee worked 12-hour shifts, seven days a week for nearly nine months after the attacks.

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