TOPICS > World

Ground Zero Recovery Worker Suffers From Illness Due to Work Conditions

September 6, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT

JON SFERAZO, President, Unsung Heroes Helping Heroes: My name is Jon Sferazo. I’m 51 years old. I’m a disabled union structural ironworker.

I spent 29 to 32 days at the World Trade Center site. I have been afflicted with reactive airway disease. I had scarring in my voice box. And that, combined with my breathing loss problem, is what you are hearing today.

I worked construction for 27, 28 years. I was a character. I had a good personality. I liked to joke with the guys. You did that to help the day go by. When you’re the kind of person that runs into a tragedy, instead of away from it, things occur in your life that create a new person.

I was an ironworker, and we knew what demolition was. We knew what we heard. We were given access to come into the World Trade Center site the following morning. We were the first vehicle to come out. And I remember coming to some kind of realization. All right, you just got to get out there and you got to get this done. Let’s get out there. Let’s look for people.

We couldn’t possibly visualize the devastation that was unfolding in front of us, as we were getting involved with the work we were doing. There was smoke everywhere. You know, it was like the smell of death. And I was sucking in so much of it. It was very difficult to breathe.

Anything you put over your face restricted volume of some kind going into your lungs. But only paper masks were available in the beginning. And it wasn’t until, God, almost a week later, they were issuing respirators for us.

I remember, the first four days were a nightmare. And I suffered for years afterwards with nightmares. I saw them pull a section of stairway, one big shot. And when we picked it up, there was a fireman. There was a fireman underneath, intact — the only thing I ever saw intact while I was down there, long dead, but he was intact. And it renewed your feelings that there could still be survivors there.

Suffering in silence

JON SFERAZO: Sometimes, I never went home. I felt like I was in peril. I felt like I only found sanctity, security by being there. Where do you find comfort after something like that?

I expected my family to be very receptive. You know, my kids, they couldn't grasp it. Here's dad. He's not the same guy. He's short-tempered. He stays by himself. My kids saw this guy that started becoming verbally aggressive. I was taking it out on them.

This was my way of reacting to what I ingested. And I wound up pushing these kids away from me. Even my wife was growing irritable, just being around my irritability.

I was so into my feelings. I was so distraught, so ripped apart after seeing what I saw at the Trade Center. I needed professional help. So, I got into a group. And it was a group of 9/11 responders. They had group therapy. And that was the door being lifted off my chest. It was the door that was opening for me, that started the counseling that I go to now, even to this day, five years later.

I didn't find anybody, you know? That's not easy to live with, when that's what your intent was. So, I got to do something. I got to try to help people, you know?

I and others formed an organization, the Unsung Heroes Helping Heroes, because too many of us are suffering in silence. I urge you, I urge all of you who want to be advocates, who have problems, please, come forward, as I have done. Let your voices be heard.

JON SFERAZO: We created a not-for-profit organization to aid and assist responders.

What we do is try to get them their medical, pharmaceutical, psychological needs, and, in some cases, help them with financial opportunities that might still be available.

The victims' compensation fund is closed, but the crime victims board is still open. And the people who have lost a lengthy amount of time from work, we know it's difficult.

I'm finally starting to see a tunnel now that's got a little light at the very end. You know, I got the kids back. I'm able to deal, not the way I want to yet, but I'm getting there.