They pulled survivors from the rubble and rebuilt Manhattan after terrorists leveled the Twin Towers. Now, front-line workers are asking for a little consideration in return.
Richard Yodice hasn’t left his Boynton Beach home in months. Aside from a doctor’s visit here and there or the occasional lonely drive in his car, he hasn’t been around a friend, family member or another human being since the first week of March.
"Eating food, watching TV, and that’s about it, I’m sorry to say," he said of how he spends endless days, holed up alone in his house due to fears of contracting coronavirus. "I still haven’t swallowed this whole thing. I’m hoping someday I will wake up and the dream will be over."
He doesn’t use the word "nightmare" to describe the pandemic that has infected 12 million people and killed over a half million. He already survived one of those.
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On September 11, 2001, Yodice was a Consolidated Edison electric utility worker in New York. As the terrorist attack unfolded, Yodice was summoned to work.
"I was in the bedroom and I turned on the TV and that's when I saw the second plane hit the towers," he said of learning about the 9-11 terrorist attacks hours after returning home to Brooklyn after working the night shift at Con Edison. "I thought Manhattan was under attack."
Yodice, who retired from the utility company in 2012 after 38 years, was sent to lower Manhattan to substations under the destroyed World Trade Center. Restarting the substations ultimately would be critical to restore power to the area as the financial district began the long process of recovery from the traumatic attack.
"It was quite a sight, even before we got to ground zero," he said of the hero’s welcome he and his co-workers received when they arrived at the scene of the devastation. "There were people on the street like we just got back from a parade. They were glad to see us, because a lot of Manhattan was out of electricity."
Robert Walsh, retired NYPD detective was there, too. Despite having retired a few months earlier, Walsh volunteered to help search the rubble for survivors.
"We found areas where people could have survived — hollows — and a lot of people were found," he said. "But I lost a couple of friends, cops and firemen. They never found any of their remains. They were incinerated."
Yodice and Walsh toiled alongside other first responders to restore the city to its former glory. But many paid a dear price. Some died, and others still suffer debilitating health problems as a direct result of exposure to toxins from the fallen buildings and clean-up materials.
"The Ph level of the toxic concrete dust was the same as Drano," said Michael Barasch, managing partner of Barasch & McGarry, a law firm that represents over 20,000 first responders who became sick after being exposed to 9-11 toxins.
Today, those front line workers have something else to fear.
"If you have a respiratory illness such as asthma, chronic bronchitis or one of these 68 cancers caused by exposure to 9-11 toxins, your immune system is compromised and you are much more vulnerable to COVID-19," Barasch said.
Now, with their lives once again on the line, many of those once hailed as heroes are asking the public to step up to help protect them.
"Maybe their immune systems are not what they used to be and they can catch this virus very easily," Yodice said of 911 workers now at high risk of infection. "If you’re told to stay away from the bars and the beaches, do it. We all have to live in this world together."
Barasch said at least 25 of his clients have died from COVID-19, but he is not even certain of the real number because death certificates are so backed up.
"Florida is where we’re seeing so many clients getting sick and dying because it’s a hot zone," he said. "And it’s so heartbreaking."
Walsh, 73, was wintering in Margate when coronavirus gripped the nation. He has since returned to his home in Staten Island, but COPD, sleep apnea and melanoma leave him weary of catching the virus. He ventures out only with a mask, gloves and "lots of hand sanitizer," he said.
"Anyone who is a former resident of New York City or worked in that area during the 911 fiasco, you were subjected to the same stuff," he warns others. "You may now have breathing issues or cancer or issues you don’t even realize came from that. You should get checked."
Barasch said people should be wary of anyone who says the public is safe from coronavirus. He’s heard similar claims before.
"The EPA assured us all the air was safe," he said of 9-11. "They wanted people to go back to work and for everybody to feel safe and secure. They did go back, and, as result, they got sick and now they are even more at risk."
Political leaders are partly to blame for some people’s refusal to take coronavirus seriously, he said. And that is something that needs to change.
"Unfortunately our leaders have really let us down," he said. "This is not a political issue. I am not a Democrat or a Republican. I am an American. There is no excuse for ignorance, but a lot of it comes from our own leader. Show a little courtesy and look out for each other."
Barasch said he was encouraged when Republican Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio finally said publicly on June 24 that people should wear masks. He said he wishes other Florida leaders and the president would heed scientists and follow suit.
"Listen to the CDC and wear the damn mask," he said. "We're not out of the woods by a long shot. We are failing."
Walsh said he has already lost seven or eight friends to the virus. And he doesn’t want to be next.
"You get to a certain point in your life, you want to live a little longer," he said. "We were supposed to go to Europe again this summer. And I’d like to live to next year to be able to do it. You’d have to be crazy to not wear a mask and follow the rules for social distancing."
Yodice just wants out of his house. He said he looks forward to the day he can visit his three kids and four grandkids, or swing by and have dinner with his nearby cousin.
"I don’t feel like I am the person that I was," he said of months living alone in fear. "I’m not the same person in my mind. But I’m still here. As long as God lets me get up in the morning, it’s a good day.
This story originally published to palmbeachpost.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.