Saturday, September 08, 2007

Giuliani’s Ground Zero Legacy

Published: September 8, 2007

Rudy Giuliani is going to be at ground zero next week, taking part in ceremonies to remember the victims of Sept. 11. That was inevitable — the man has so identified himself with 9/11 that it’s amazing he hasn’t tried to patent it.

It’s also a terrible idea.

After the attacks, Giuliani did his best work in front of a microphone, speaking simply and honestly to the city and the nation. Ground zero, on the other hand, is the site of his worst failure.

That’s saying a great deal when you consider that this is the man whose crack plan for disaster response involved building the city emergency command center in one of the towers of the best-known terrorist targets in the nation.

But think about this: In the final months of his mayoralty, Giuliani went to ground zero 41 times, with whatever visiting statesman, movie star or sports hero who happened to be in town. He would walk them around the edge of the disaster zone and retell the story of 9/11. They could see ironworkers and crane operators dismantling the ruins and emergency workers looking for remains of the victims. Beneath those workers, the still-burning wreckage coughed up benzene and PCB’s and asbestos. The city had received many reports about the danger of that air. Looking down, Giuliani could see that very few people — except the health supervisors — were wearing protective gear. And he did nothing about it.

Now, some of those workers have gotten sick. Since thousands of them have filed lawsuits, it’s not likely that there will be any coming to terms with the numbers soon. The city has not even acknowledged that James Zadroga, a 34-year-old New York City police detective who died in January 2006, was killed by what his family said was more than 400 hours put in at the site. But a New Jersey coroner found that Zadroga died from a disease caused by his exposure to the ground zero dust. A widower, he left behind an orphaned 5-year-old daughter who is being raised by her grandparents.

Construction workers and emergency crews who raced to a stricken New York, eager to offer their services, are now wheezing and, in some cases, sitting immobilized in their living rooms, sucking oxygen from a tank. Their families have already paid a terrible price, and either the city or the federal government is likely to wind up with a financial bill equal to the moral one it already bears.

Workers exposed to toxic air can be protected by respirators. They’re uncomfortable and heavy, and people don’t like to wear them, even when it’s important to their health and safety. So the person in charge of a dangerous site needs to make it clear that only those with proper equipment can come anywhere near it. That’s what happened in Washington at the Pentagon, where there haven’t been health problems. Over in Staten Island, where workers were examining the rubble that the ground zero crews had excavated and loaded onto trucks, people were so well-protected that some of them looked like bit players in a space movie.

At ground zero, the priority was getting the site cleared as quickly as possible to show the world that New York was back to normal. The workers were left on their own. This happened on the watch of a mayor who had been eager to save us from our own imperfect impulses by bringing down the heavy hand of the law on every jaywalker, Chinese New Year firecracker-thrower or ferret owner in the city, not to mention the famous squeegee wielders.

Giuliani also set the worst possible example. While his own expeditions to ground zero were generally confined to the areas where the air was much less dangerous, his failure to ever, ever wear serious protection sent a very strong signal to the workers: Real Men Don’t Wear Respirators.

Sept. 11, 2001, gave Giuliani an extraordinary platform from which to educate the country about terrorism and public safety. Imagine how much help he could have been if he had talked about the mistakes made, the lessons learned. But he has never admitted error.

He has never acknowledged that it might have been better if he had focused less on getting the disaster site cleared away fast, and more on getting all the workers out in one piece. Recently, he had the temerity to claim that he’s a victim, too. “I was at ground zero as often, if not more, than most of the workers ... I was exposed to exactly the same things they were exposed to. So in that sense, I’m one of them,” he said last month during a campaign stop in Cincinnati.

Forty-odd tours of the edge of the site with beauty queens and foreign dignitaries is not exactly the same as months of round-the-clock work on top of a mass of burning plastics. Questioned later, Giuliani copped to the universal politician non-apology — a failure to communicate. Then he added “... but I was there often enough so that every health consequence that people have suffered, I could also be suffering.”

It was, you see, all about him.


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