Remembering the terrorist attacks of September 11th can be disturbing and can rekindle memories of drama, death and, for some, dust. It was thick, choking clouds of dust that retired FDNY Deputy Chief James Riches struggled to breath through day after day for months. Four years later, shortness of breath forced him to the emergency room.
"They X-rayed my lungs, listened to my chest and told my wife I would be dead in five hours," he said. "My lungs were filled with fluid, and I better get my family together because they didn't think i was going to make it."
Riches' lung problems persisted even after they resulted in his forced retirement. He's one of 13,000 first responders in who participated in the study. It found that compared to pre-9/11 tests, those rescuers who had sustained dust exposure had a decline in lung function that persisted for the seven years of the study without improvement.
Dr. David Prezant, of Montefiore Medical Center, is the fire department's chief doctor and the study's author.
"There were thousands of gallons of jet fuel that were burning," he said. "Then these towers collapsed, causing particle matter, dust coated with chemicals, to be in the air, so thick that you couldn't see your hand through it. That's what they were breathing."
It is much different from the air fire rescuers are used to.
Permanent lung changes in firefighters are very unusual. Some firefighters at a house fire, for example, may have reduced lung function afterward. These changes generally improve quickly.
But Dr. Prezant says the dust at ground zero was so thick, it overwhelmed the cleansing power of the lungs and attacked air sacs deep the lung tissue. He says the damage was permanent, as it is with Riches, who was in a coma for two weeks and miraculously survived.
"Right now, I've improved a lot," he said. "I'm not back to normal, but I thank God I'm alive every day."
Riches is one of the true heroes of September 11, as is his son Jimmy, also a firefighter, who gave his life trying to aid victims trapped in one of the towers. Dr. Prezant says it's impossible to know if downtown residents will have lung problems, but those who had a previous history of breathing issues should follow up with their doctors or with programs monitoring such people.