As the echoes of the 9-11 fifth anniversary fade away, for Alex Sánchez that fateful date repeats itself 365 days a year.
"I saw the 9-11 attacks," remembers Alex, a 38-year-old New Yorker of Dominican descent. "I felt obligated to help the city that witnessed my birth. It was an honor to have been there that day. But now I don't know how much time I have left."
Alex is one of the thousands of Latino workers who almost immediately answered the call to participate in the cleanup efforts in the buildings next to the vanished Twin Towers. Today, Alex is so sick from the toxic white dust that covered everything after the attacks that he has been left incapacitated, and he fears the nodules that have been detected in one of his lungs could be the early stages of cancer.
"I can't get rid of this cough, I am very fatigued, I have this pounding head ache and immense depression," he says. "I still have chunks of those buildings in my body, and it's killing me."
But Alex is also sick of the spectacular levels of government corruption which hid - from him and thousands of other workers and residents - the terrible health dangers that were waiting for them near the ruins of the World Trade Center.
According to results from an EPA internal investigation revealed this month, not only the White House falsely reassured the public about the environmental safety in and around Ground Zero -as was previously disclosed- but then-EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman also participated in these efforts to mislead workers and residents.
The documents, unearthed as part of a 2003 Inspector General's investigation of the EPA's response to 9/11, included an interview with then-Whitman spokesperson Tina Kreisher. When asked whether there existed a deliberate will to reassure the public, "Ms. Kreisher said there was such an effort. This emphasis 'came from the Administrator [Whitman] and the White House'," according to the documents.
Two years ago, the Sierra Club, in a devastating study about the Bush administration's reckless negligence at Ground Zero, warned that in the days, weeks and months after the attacks, the EPA should have known that there were high levels of toxics, such as asbestos, benzene, dioxins, PCBs, and pulverized cement and crystal.
"This is negligence and a criminal act, to put people in danger," says Alex, who now acknowledges he would never have entered Ground Zero had he known the dangers he would be exposing himself to.
Alex's 25 fellow cleaning squad members are all sick with the same symptoms as his. In fact, according to a recent study by Mt. Sinai Medical Center -the institution that is leading the treatment of the victims of the Ground Zero contamination- almost 70 percent of workers are sick because of their exposure to the toxic dust. And the Latino workers who cleaned the neighboring buildings are paying a high price for their response to the emergency.
"Out of the 16,000 participants in our program monitoring the health of the Ground Zero workers, 3,000 are Latinos," says Dr. Rafael de la Hoz, a Mt. Sinai Medical Center specialist. "In our program of medical treatment of sick Ground Zero workers, Latinos constitute 33 percent of the patients, a little over 700."
The lack of health insurance among Latinos worsens this crisis.
"Forty percent of participants in our health monitoring program lack health insurance," says de la Hoz. "Among Latinos the percentage is even higher, some 75 percent, which makes this group, because of this and many other reasons, especially vulnerable."
Alex is among that 75 percent. Before 9-11, he earned some $600 a week. Today he gets just $143 a week in workers' compensation, even though he was promised $243.
"I feel like a beggar after having given my health to help stabilize New York City," laments Alex, who can hardly provide for his mother and his five-year-old son.
But the future does not look any better. The same federal standards used to respond to the 9-11 environmental emergency were applied after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf last year with well-known catastrophic consequences. And these standards are still current, thanks to the Bush Administration.
It's no wonder Alex says, "God forbid another 9-11."