NEW YORK — A federal judge has picked 12 ground zero responders whose cases will be the first to go to trial over illnesses caused by ash and dust from the World Trade Center following the terrorist attack.
More than 9,000 people who played a role in the massive rescue and recovery operation after 9/11 have filed lawsuits against New York City, claiming they developed a wide variety of health problems after being exposed to soot at the site.
U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein on Friday announced the select few that will go first, and perhaps serve as bellwethers for resolving the rest.
The group includes a firefighter who died of throat cancer and another who needed a lung transplant, several police officers with asthma, and a sampling of other laborers worried about their health.
Collectively, the workers have argued that the city and the dozens of contractors it hired to move mountains of debris should shell out more than $1 billion in damages for failing to give responders proper protective equipment.
Public sentiment has landed largely on the side of the workers, but the details of these first cases suggest that not every one will be a slam dunk with a jury.
One Consolidated Edison worker in the group, Richard Calderon, never worked on the debris pile, wore a full respirator for almost all of his time near the site and acknowledged in a deposition that he might not actually be sick.
"I don't know if there's any injuries," he said, when asked why he was suing. He added that he was still worried about his health. "I don't know what's going on inside my body."
Utility worker Robert Galvani also donned a respirator for all his work near the trade center and weighs around 400 pounds, raising questions about whether his breathing problems were due to 9/11.
Other plaintiffs have more compelling stories.
Firefighter Frank Malone, 39, commandeered a city bus to get to the trade center from Brooklyn on Sept. 11 and arrived just after the second tower collapsed.
He found chaos, a smashed chain of command and a sky dark with ash.
"Everything was on fire," he said in a deposition. "All the surrounding buildings were just burning. I've never seen anything like it in my life."
He stayed for two days, digging with his hands with only a flimsy painter's mask for protection, stopping occasionally to blow black soot from his nose.
"I slept for probably two hours on the sidewalk," he said.
Later he returned for another eight days on the pile, searching for body parts and passing buckets of dust. There was no respirator for him then, either. He finally got one when he returned for a third tour in December.
Lawyers for the city have argued that it can't possibly held accountable for what happened in the initial hours and days after the attacks, given the enormity of the disaster.
From the start, they say, the city tried its best to protect everyone, working with federal authorities to ultimately provide 130,000 respirators to the workers - more than three for each person.
The city's legal team has also complained that thousands of people have added their names to the lawsuits even though they aren't sick or have health conditions unrelated to Sept. 11.
One plaintiff - not included among the 12 selected for trial - was a woman who suffered a heart attack while watching the trade center attack at home on television. Another was a limo driver who had nothing to do with the recovery effort and wasn't in the vicinity of the site until 2003.
An Associated Press review of dozens of ground zero cases revealed that some contained legal papers with inaccurate descriptions of worker illnesses or time spent at ground zero.
Some plaintiffs were listed as having cancer, when they do not. Others were recorded as having worked nonstop at the trade center for many months, when other documents showed they spent only occasional days there.
The trials, set to start in May, will likely include testimony from experts who will question why some plaintiffs seemed healthy for years after the attacks, and only recently developed health problems.
Malone said in his deposition that he felt fine for years, until he began wheezing while out for a jog in 2004. Within days he was treated in an emergency room for shortness of breath and tightness in his chest. He was diagnosed with asthma and spent months on medical leave before returning to light duty.
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His lawyer, Andrew Carboy, said he was looking forward to trials that would showcase "the city's systemic, deeply rooted dysfunction" when it came to protecting workers.