Anyone who watched Rudolph W. Giuliani preside over ground zero in the days after 9/11 glimpsed elements of his strength: decisiveness, determination, self-confidence.
Those qualities were also on display over the months he directed the cleanup of the collapsed World Trade Center. But today, with evidence that thousands of people who worked at ground zero have become sick, many regard Mr. Giuliani’s triumph of leadership as having come with a human cost.
An examination of Mr. Giuliani’s handling of the extraordinary recovery operation during his last months in office shows that he seized control and largely limited the influence of experienced federal agencies. In doing that, according to some experts and many of those who worked in the trade center’s ruins, Mr. Giuliani might have allowed his sense of purpose to trump caution in the rush to prove that his city was not crippled by the attack.
Administration documents and thousands of pages of legal testimony filed in a lawsuit against New York City, along with more than two dozen interviews with people involved in the events of the last four months of Mr. Giuliani’s administration, show that while the city had a safety plan for workers, it never meaningfully enforced federal requirements that those at the site wear respirators.
At the same time, the administration warned companies working on the pile that they would face penalties or be fired if work slowed. And according to public hearing transcripts and unpublished administration records, officials also on some occasions gave flawed public representations of the nature of the health threat, even as they privately worried about exposure to lawsuits by sickened workers.
“The city ran a generally slipshod, haphazard, uncoordinated, unfocused response to environmental concerns,” said David Newman, an industrial hygienist with the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, a labor group.
City officials and a range of medical experts are now convinced that the dust and toxic materials in the air around the site were a menace. More than 2,000 New York City firefighters have been treated for serious respiratory problems. Seventy percent of nearly 10,000 recovery workers screened at Mount Sinai Medical Center have trouble breathing. City officials estimate that health care costs related to the air at ground zero have already run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, and no one knows whether other illnesses, like cancers, will emerge.
The question of who, if anyone, is to blame for not adequately protecting the workers could finally be decided in United States District Court in Manhattan, where thousands of firefighters, police officers and other recovery workers are suing the city for negligence.
City officials have always maintained that they acted in good faith to protect everyone at the site but that many workers chose not to wear available safety equipment, for a variety of reasons.
Mr. Giuliani has said very little publicly about how his leadership might have influenced the behavior of the men and women who worked at ground zero. Mr. Giuliani, whose image as a 9/11 hero has been a focus of his run for president, declined to be interviewed for this article. His representatives did not respond to specific questions about the pace of the cleanup, the hazards at the site and Mr. Giuliani’s reticence about the workers’ illnesses.
Moreover, many of the people who ran agencies for Mr. Giuliani or who handled responsibility for the health issues after he left office would not comment, citing the pending litigation.
In the past, Mr. Giuliani has said that quickly reopening the financial district was essential for healing New York and the nation. The cost of Wall Street’s going dark was enormous, and Mr. Giuliani has said he was forced to balance competing interests as he confronted a never-imagined emergency, and he acknowledged that he and others made mistakes.
A Mayor in Control
From the beginning, there was no doubt that Mr. Giuliani and his team ruled the hellish disaster site. Officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, all with extensive disaster response experience, arrived almost immediately, only to be placed on the sideline. One Army Corps official said Mr. Giuliani acted like a “benevolent dictator.”
Despite the presence of those federal experts, Mr. Giuliani assigned the ground zero cleanup to a largely unknown city agency, the Department of Design and Construction. Kenneth Holden, the department’s commissioner until January 2004, said in a deposition in the federal lawsuit against the city that he initially expected FEMA or the Army Corps to try to take over the cleanup operation. Mr. Giuliani never let them.