It was the morning of the 9/11 attacks, and John Mormando was watching “Barney & Friends” with his kid. Not 10 minutes later, he switched channels and watched the towers come down on live television.
Normally he would have been working downtown as a trader at the New York Mercantile Exchange, only a few blocks from the World Trade Center. But his wife was on a business trip, so he stayed home with his 2-year-old son. Six days went by, and Mormando was ordered to go back to work.
The Environmental Protection Agency said the “air was safe to breathe” at Ground Zero. Later a 2003 report from the Office of Inspector General found that the EPA did not have enough information to make that claim.
But Mormando says he and his co-workers felt like heroes. They were standing up against terrorism. So he put on his N95 mask and went back to work among the burning rubble.
“It looked like a damn war zone,” said Mormando, a 54-year-old Oakland resident. “But they made us feel like heroes. All the big-time politicians met us at the trading floor — it was Rudy Giuliani, at the time Senator Hillary Clinton and Governor [George] Pataki.”
Years later Mormando developed skin cancer, followed by other tumors. In 2018 doctors told him he had breast cancer, and he lost one of his nipples shortly after. He later connected all of it to his exposure to the 9/11 toxics.
Then, in March, Mormando contracted COVID-19. It was 15 straight days of fevers and chills, he said.
He became one of the thousands of 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund recipients to be infected with COVID-19. More than 100 of them have died of complications of the disease, according to Barasch & McGarry, a law firm that represents 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund recipients.
The lung ravages caused by the pollutants at Ground Zero leaves survivors more vulnerable to respiratory illness. Chemotherapy suppresses the immune system. Furthermore, the lingering trauma of the terror attacks, even after 19 years, stirs up old anxieties for survivors. The body bags, the scale of the death — it’s all difficult to bear.
An estimated 400,000 people were exposed to 9/11 toxic dust, and a quarter of them have been screened for 9/11-related illnesses.
“This group of people has to be more careful than anyone else, because they are the most at risk,” said lawyer Michael Barasch, who represents more than 1,500 9/11 first responders and survivors in New Jersey.
A New York City marathoner and Ironman Triathlon competitor, Mormando had the strength to fight off the coronavirus.
“I had COVID when no one knew anything about it — they basically gave me Tylenol and cough syrup and said, ‘Here you go,’ ” he said. “They wanted to put me in ICU, and I refused. I didn’t want to be in a coma with tubes down my throat. I didn’t want to be on a ventilator.
“Maybe it saved my life.”
James, a retired firefighter from Middletown, New Jersey, who does not want his last name used, helped treat survivors at One Liberty Plaza on 9/11.
Years later, those weeks of breathing in the pollutants have left him with gastroesophageal reflux disease, sleep apnea and several respiratory diseases.
He has avoided COVID-19 so far but has lost several former co-workers to complications from the disease.
Now, with global vaccinations underway, he’s conflicted.
“I’m very torn,” James said. “I’m glad that it came out and that it shows to be 94%-95% effectiveness. As much as I want to get it, I also want to hold off a little bit. It’s too soon to know the side effects or adverse reactions.”
His constellation of ailments means he already struggles daily. Fatigue has been reported by roughly 63% of research subjects who received the Pfizer vaccine, according to the FDA; headache and muscle pain have affected about 55% and 38% of participants, respectively. In most cases, those symptoms have been mild and resolved within a day or so.
James, however, said he wants to see how vaccines affect people in the long term.
He’s also concerned with amending his 9/11 victim fund certifications, which he said allow a maximum of three diseases per recipient. COVID-19 recently became eligible.
“I can’t really put a dollar amount on what I think the awards should have been — but I do not think there should be a limit on the number of diseases you can be compensated for,” James said.
The psychological toll of COVID-19
Matthew Flood worked on “the Pile.” He moved thousands of pounds of rubble every day and says you could taste the human remains in the air.
Sixteen guys from his Washington Heights neighborhood died in the 9/11 attacks. It was wake after wake and funeral after funeral, he says.
He now suffers with rhinosinusitis and gastroesophageal reflux disease, as well as cancer — all risk factors for COVID-19.
The coronavirus, however, affected Flood on a psychological level.
“I can’t watch the news. I just can’t — this … brings up 9/11 for me,” said Flood, who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder and PTSD. “There might be a feel-good story in there once in a while, but most of it is just death tolls.”
This year has also been tough on his two kids. His son made the varsity team as a freshman at Metuchen High School. Flood said he’s never been prouder of his son. Every week, he and the other parents watch their kids from the sidelines with masks on and give each other “occasional fist-bumps.”
The stress he feels as a parent is almost unbearable sometimes.
“I’m very overprotective of my kids, so when the pandemic came on it just added another layer,” said Flood, 54. “I cannot relax until they’re both home. I pray that these vaccines work for these people getting them — I want this to be over.”
Flood was offered the vaccine recently along with a group of 9/11 first responders. He demurred. Give it to the nurses, doctors and patients out on the front lines now, he said.
“9/11 is the biggest attack we’ve had in this country, but this pandemic is more insidious — you can’t see it,” Flood said. And with the coronavirus, you can jeopardize your whole family, he said.
Isaiah McCall is a local reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.