By Ashley Rodriguez and Beatriz Muylaert, THE CITY
This story is part of “MISSING THEM,” THE CITY’s ongoing collaborative project to remember every New Yorker killed by COVID-19. You can participate: If you know someone who died or may have died due to the coronavirus, share their story here or leave us a voicemail at 646-494-1095.
Michael Field arrived at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, shortly after the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers.
The FDNY emergency medical technician wound up working at Ground Zero for nine months. He later suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and pulmonary issues — conditions that his wife, Stacey Field, attributed to his work digging through the rubble as the rescue operation quickly turned to a long-term recovery effort.
“They were told everything was fine down there,” she told THE CITY.
A week after the attack, then-federal Environmental Protection Agency boss Christine Todd Whitman said that the “air is safe to breathe.” A 2003 report from the Office of Inspector General found the EPA did not have enough information to make that assertion.
While Field, who lived in Valley Stream on Long Island, fought his illnesses after serving at Ground Zero, 19 years later COVID-19 got the best of him. He died on April 8 at the age of 59, leaving behind his wife and three adult sons: Steven, Richie and Jason.
He’s far from the only 9/11 first responder or survivor taken by the pandemic.
Officially, 42 have died of COVID-19, according to the World Trade Center Health Program.
But advocates, lawyers — and WTC Health Program officials — say the actual toll is likely much greater.
Tracking the Vulnerable
In April, THE CITY reported that the World Trade Center Health Program — administered by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and funded through the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act — had not been monitoring the outbreak’s impact on its 79,000 enrolled first responders and more than 26,000 survivors.
They’ve since started counting. In the past six months, at least 1,300 people who worked or lived at or near Ground Zero and other 9/11 sites have contracted COVID-19.
It is challenging to get a precise tally of infections and deaths. At the beginning of the pandemic, only those who saw or contacted health care providers affiliated with the WTC Health Program were counted, officials said.
Stephanie Stevens, a spokesperson for Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, which oversees the program, said clinics later began calling members who fell into the CDC’s high-risk category for complications from COVID-19.
Now, WTC Health Program clinics are scheduling monitoring exams that they hope will help them learn the COVID-19 status of enrollees, she said.
“This data is collected passively,” said Stevens. “Each clinic took a different approach.”
That can make it difficult to assess the actual toll.
Michael Field was one of the many members of the WTC Health program, but it is unclear whether his death is reflected in the 42 logged so far.
And the 105,000 total people enrolled in the WTC Health Program account for only a quarter of the estimated population exposed to toxic dust after the attacks. Of those tracked, 55% have developed a 9/11-related illness and 2,955 had died before the pandemic. An additional 541 died between March 31, 2020 and June 30, 2020, according to the CDC.
People affected by the attacks that day in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania are now spread out throughout the country and there is no official directory. The WTC Health Program is also unable to share names, under federal health privacy laws.
Some 400K Exposed
More than 58,000 survivors and first responders enrolled in the WTC Health Program have wrestled with 9/11’s after-effects: respiratory problems, pulmonary disease and a higher rate of cancer than the general population, according to program statistics.
This makes them especially vulnerable to COVID-19 — a virus that attacks the lungs and compromised immune systems.
An estimated 400,000 people were exposed to 9/11 toxic dust, of whom only a quarter have been screened for 9/11-related illnesses. The long-term effects of the exposure are also still being understood.
Some sickened survivors have also sought and received aid from the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, also funded through the Zadroga Act, in addition to WTC Health Program coverage.
Michael Barasch, partner in a law firm that represents more than 20,000 people who developed related health conditions after 9/11, said his clients are uniquely vulnerable to the coronavirus.
“Whether you have a serious respiratory illness or chemo or radiation, that is going to make your immune system compromised,” he said. “They get coronavirus and they die.”
He said that 98 of his clients have died due to coronavirus since March, and all of them had underlying 9/11 respiratory illnesses or were cancer survivors. He would not confirm if any of his clients were among the Sept. 11 survivors THE CITY found to have died of COVID.
Telling Their Stories
As part of the MISSING THEM project to memorialize every New Yorker who died due to COVID-19, THE CITY set out to find people whose health was affected by both tragedies.
Through public records, news reports and tributes on social media, THE CITY identified two dozen 9/11 survivors and first responders who died of COVID-19 — at least 11 of whom suffered from a 9/11-related illness such as cancer or respiratory ailments.
The toll includes Anthony Iraci, a former NYPD detective and retired FDNY firefighter who developed a respiratory illness after working at Ground Zero, and Idris Bey, an FDNY EMT who worked rescue and recovery.
Peter Panayiotou, a Queens resident who immigrated from Cyprus, was overseeing renovations at his diner, Gee Whiz, just a few blocks north of the World Trade Center, when the planes struck the towers, according to his family.
He survived the attack and continued to run Gee Whiz on Greenwich Street. About eight years later, he developed scleroderma, a hardening of muscle tissue, in his lungs.
He qualified for the Victim Compensation Fund and used an oxygen machine for three years while being placed on an organ transfer waiting list. In 2013, Panayiotou underwent a successful bilateral lung transplant, which required him to take strong immunotherapy suppressants.
Panayiotou went on with his life, designing things in the house he had built, raised five kids in, and where he still lived in Astoria with his wife. When the pandemic struck in March, Panayiotou was 65 and his family knew of his health risk.
“He was taking precautions, at the beginning, when everything was going on,” his daughter Margaret Panayiotou told THE CITY. “But he had to still be at the restaurant. It wasn’t like we were having the quarantine yet.”
Gee Whiz closed its doors the week before Panayiotou tested positive for coronavirus.
He was diagnosed on March 23. Two days later, he went back to the hospital with a high fever and was sent home with a prescription for a dermal patch and hydroxychloroquine, according to his daughter. He took the first dose but awoke the next morning unable to breathe.
His family called 911 and he was taken to Mount Sinai Queens hospital, in Astoria. Panayiotou was intubated, placed on a ventilator and heavily sedated for 10 days. He died at the age of 65 on April 5. Panayiotou is survived by his wife and five children.
“He was there [at Gee Whiz] 24 hours, he was there more than he was home. The TriBeCa community, his workers, the customers that came in, that was his family,” said Margaret Panayiotou. “He was a very caring person. He didn’t deserve this.”
An Even Tougher Day This Year
Even in coronavirus cases, families are eligible for the compensation fund as long a qualifying 9/11-related illness is listed under one of the three categories in the death certificate: immediate cause of death, underlying causes of death or significant conditions contributing to death, according to the Victim Compensation Fund FAQ.
Stacey Field will not get compensation since her husband never sought out 9/11-related aid and, despite his pulmonary issues, there is no established connection between his death and a 9/11-related illness. VCF compensation is only available to those who had had their condition certified by the WTC Health Program, which Field did not.
Stacey said he didn’t want to deal with the WTC Health Program because he still had health insurance through his work as an EMT.
But in recent years her husband’s rheumatoid arthritis pain had gotten worse. She said they had only just begun exploring his options on how to get his medical issues covered by the Zadroga Act, which didn’t recognize arthritis as a 9/11 illness but might have accepted his pulmonary issues. The WTC Health Program does cover osteoarthritis, if it is associated with an acute traumatic injury, musculoskeletal disorder or cancer.
“Before he got sick with COVID, he was having a very, very hard time with joint pain, and his one ankle had deteriorated really badly,” Stacey Field said of her husband.
This year, to address safety concerns, the FDNY Commissioner has asked 9/11 responders and survivors to forgo remembrance events. Unlike in previous years, the names of 9/11 victims will not be read out by their family members at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. Instead, a recording will be played.
Stacey Field said when her husband was alive he had a tough time participating in activities looking back on that horrific day.
“He just, he didn’t want to go through more of it. He didn’t want to,” said Stacey about 9/11 remembrance events. “A lot of the documentaries and, you know, like 9/11 he would never sit and watch. You know the people reading the names and everything?
“He couldn’t deal with it.”
Ashley Rodriguez is a J-Corps fellow from the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.
Beatriz Muylaeart is a reporting fellow for Columbia Journalism Investigations, an investigative reporting unit at the Columbia Journalism School.
Dean Russell and Scooty Nickerson from Columbia Journalism Investigations contributed research.
If you know someone who survived 9/11 and passed away due to COVID-19, please let us know by filling out this form, emailing email@example.com or calling (646) 494-1095.
Here are the names of some of the people who had 9/11-related illnesses and died from COVID-19
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