NEW YORK (Reuters) - Eleven years after the September 11, 2001, attacks, New Yorkers will mark the anniversary on Tuesday against a backdrop of health concerns for emergency workers and a feud over financing that has stopped construction of the $1 billion Ground Zero museum.
While notable progress on redevelopment of the World Trade Center has been made since early disputes over financial, design and security issues, the project remains hobbled by political battles and billions of dollars in cost overruns.
A major sticking point is the museum at the heart of the World Trade Center (WTC) site redevelopment. Construction has been suspended because of a feud over finances between the National September 11 Memorial and Museum foundation and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
When the foundation announced recently that for the first time, politicians would be excluded from having speaking roles in the September 11 anniversary ceremonies, it was seen by many victims’ families and others in the 9/11 community as a public reflection of these behind-the-scenes disputes.
Overall site redevelopment costs have grown to nearly $15 billion, up from $11 billion in 2008, according to a recent project audit.
But for many of the families of 9/11 victims and ailing Ground Zero workers, the redevelopment disputes are a disheartening sideshow to the rising loss of human lives.
When the 110-storey Twin Towers came down, thousands of tons of steel, concrete, window glass and asbestos came down with it. While thousands of gallons (liters) of flaming jet fuel and burning plastics released deadly carcinogens.
Last week, the New York City Fire Department added nine names to the 55 already etched on a wall honoring members who have died of illnesses related to Ground Zero rescue and recovery work.
Some estimates put the overall death toll from 9/11-related illness at more than 1,000. Nationwide, at least 20,000 Ground Zero workers are being treated and 40,000 are being monitored by the World Trade Center Health Program.
“We’re burying guys left and right,” said Nancy Carbone, executive director of Friends of Firefighters, a Brooklyn-based non-profit that helps treat first responders. “This is an ongoing epidemic.”
In the past seven weeks, three New York City cops, two firefighters and a construction union worker who toiled at Ground Zero have died of cancer or respiratory illnesses, according John Feal, who runs a non profit that monitors Ground Zero health care issues.
The staggered nature of the respiratory diagnoses have complicated efforts to distribute $2.7 billion in federal victim compensation funds. A range of cancers is expected to be added to the list of ailments covered by the fund this month.
Leslie Haskins, who lost her husband on 9/11, said she has grown disillusioned by the politics of the reconstruction, and wants to see more attention paid to the ailing workers.
“They are sick and dying and their marriages are breaking up,” she said. “Why are we pouring all this money into buildings when men don’t have enough insurance to buy breathing apparatus?”
Retired Fire Department of New York City (FDNY) battalion chief Jim Riches, who spent nine months digging through the rubble at Ground Zero before his firefighter son’s body was recovered, called the reconstruction disputes “a disgrace.”
Seven years ago, Riches was hospitalized with acute respiratory disease and fell into a 16-hour coma. He came out of the coma with stroke-like symptoms.
“We can send men to the moon but we can’t rebuild some buildings in more than 10 years?” he asked.
Some progress has been made by Larry Silverstein, the developer who owned the lease on the Twin Towers and is now building three office tower at the Ground Zero site, and the Port Authority. The September 11 foundation has also raised hundreds of millions in private and public funding for the overall project.
One step forward was last fall’s opening of the September 11 Memorial at Ground Zero, twin reflecting pools in the footprints of the towers. More than four million people have visited.
Also, One World Trade Center, one of the tallest towers in the country, is near completion and expected to open in 2014.
Yet disagreements over costs have undermined the rebuilding and hurt public relations. Among the disputes, the September 11 foundation insists the Port Authority owes it $140 million, according to a source familiar with the financial issues.
The Port Authority believes it is owed $300 million, the source said.
Feal, a demolitions expert who lost part of his leg doing post 9/11 recovery work, is among those who said they are tired of reading about the contentious World Trade Center project when health concerns persist.
“2,751 lives were lost that day,” he said “That’s sad, but they didn’t suffer long. These first responders have been slowly dying for 11 years.”
Additional reporting by Joan Gralla; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Sandra Maler