June 27, 2007 -- UGLY accusations threaten to permanently fracture New York's heroic post-9/11 legacy - and, perhaps worse, to deny the realities the city faced in those first horrific days, weeks and months.

Some headlines this week treated former Environmental Protection Agency chief Christie Todd Whitman like Osama bid Laden himself. The topic was her U.S. House testimony Monday on the EPA's response to 9/11, where she took criticism for saying, a week after the attacks, that the air Downtown - not directly on the pile, as the WTC site was called - "was safe to breathe."

Interrogators implied that her statement was incorrect at best and at worst a cold lie. One House member even faulted her for bringing up the fact that the attack was personal for her, since her son was in 7 World Trade Center that morning.

Meanwhile, a small band of critics, including some 9/11 survivors, is trying to shame former Mayor Rudy Giuliani for various supposed 9/11-related infractions. They say, among other things, that he was negligent in not ensuring that recovery workers protected themselves with proper respiratory equipment on the "pile."

Here's the missing factor: In a city half shut down and in shock after the terrorist attacks, there were no safe answers.

Was Whitman wrong to say the air Downtown - again, not on the pile - was "safe"?

Of the EPA's tests of air quality in Lower Manhattan in the first month post-9/11, many showed "slightly elevated" levels of asbestos in Battery Park City that were cause for concern; others found "detectable" levels (below the level deemed dangerous in long-term exposure) in Financial District samples. A few spots had higher levels.

Yet the EPA also found that the high-powered vacuuming it was doing, both outside and inside, seemed to bring levels down below "concern" amounts.

Let's say (just for sake of argument) that we'd wanted to be 100 percent sure, rather than relying on any personal judgment whatsoever in an unprecedented situation - so that even "slightly elevated" levels of asbestos anywhere in the area would have made it strictly correct for Whitman to announce that it just wasn't possible to say that the air Downtown was "safe."

Under that standard, the question would have followed: When could we have known if the air was safe enough for financial-industry workers and Battery Park City residents to return? In a month? What about New Year's?

How about by the next May, when recovery workers finished their major operations? (Should the EPA have taken steps to declare Ground Zero a SuperFund site?)

And what does "safe to breathe" mean, anyway? Does it mean that an office worker wouldn't suffer acute heartburn Downtown during those months? That a person wouldn't have, say, a 10 percent greater lifetime risk of cancer later in life?

Remember: We couldn't have known any of this back then - since we're not sure even today.

I went back to work in October 2001 - to the office building closest to Ground Zero. When firefighters trained their hoses on the pile on a windy day, we walked through the spray that diffused around us. All of us could smell that burning-car smell in the air for months and months and months.

Does that mean it wasn't "safe" for us? I have no idea - and, since I'm not a scientist, I'm not sure that it's scientifically possible to know.

But what would the critics have had officials do?

If federal and local officials had declared Downtown a potential hazard to our health, businesses would have had no choice but to relocate elsewhere - quite possibly giving up on Downtown. The judgment call the city and the feds made seemed right at the time - and that was the time that they had to make that decision, not five or six or 10 years later.

It's easy to say today that Rudy Giuliani should have forced recovery workers to wear respirators and should have carefully monitored their hours at the site. But the mayor surely knew back then that it would be impossible to keep firefighters and police officers away from the smoldering pile of steel - or even curtail their shifts so that they could use respirators properly, when they were intent on finding their lost colleagues.

(Remember the outrage and pain that ensued when the city did try to restrict firefighters' access?)

9/11 doesn't render Giuliani's mayoralty off-limits to fair criticism, but his fiercest chastisers should remember: In the face of something previously unimaginable, the mayor made the entire world see that New York would survive.

Today, that action is discounted; the critics say he just did what anyone would have done. But Mayor Ray Nagin didn't do it for New Orleans.

A sober public discussion on city and federal officials' reaction to Ground Zero's challenges would be fine, but it can't happen in this environment. Whitman, for one, must say as little as possible - she's facing three private lawsuits, any one of which could financially ruin her.

Critics and investigators should acknowledge two bare facts before they ask more questions.

* It would have been impossible to close Downtown for months - or years - on end.

* It would have been impossible to keep rescue workers from toiling at Ground Zero as they saw fit.

The first would have decimated New York. The second would have been cruel, and near-impossible, as a practical matter, to enforce.

That was Downtown's reality in the days after 9/11, even if we don't like to remember it today. And neither Whitman nor Giuliani created it.

Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor at City Journal.

Nicole Gelinas - Accomplice to murder

Leave it to a proto-fascist rag like the Post to offer an apologia on behalf of murderer Christie Todd Whitman.

Even the absurd argument forwarded by the Post and by Whitman -- that Whitman was actually referring to "downtown" air and not Ground Zero is total bullshit. Already, it is apparent that tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, will become sick from exposure to the air in lower Manhattan, not just at Ground Zero. What, dust doesn't blow in the wind? It just stays at Ground Zero? Remember the pyroclastic flow (evidence of controlled demolition)?

I hate to say it...

but, I've seen this "911 denier" tactic coming for years. After all, it is a tried & true method of engaging the sheeple's 'crimestop' defense mechanism. Say hello to the latest 'sacred myth', America.

crimestop - Orwell's definition: "The faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. In short....protective stupidity."

It is the lowest form of propaganda

To equate 9/11 skepticism with Holocaust denial -- it taps into the most despicable form of propaganda. "Protective stupidity" is right. Some of the biggest supporters of this myth are otherwise intelligent people, people on the progressive and academic left.

I agree, but, if I had to label myself.

I guess the most accurate label I could apply would be "Contrived History Denier". Just remember, 911 is the tip of the contrived ice berg.

"the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates taught his students that the pursuit of truth can only begin once they start to question and analyze every belief that they ever held dear. If a certain belief passes the tests of evidence, deduction, and logic, it should be kept. If it doesn't, the belief should not only be discarded, but the thinker must also then question why he was led to believe the erroneous information in the first place and for what purpose."

This is just complete crap

We had to let them die on the off-chance the air was OK!!?? That's the best argument they can come up with? The call was bad, unreasonable and politically motivated, and that's it.

No way to contact her

She neither included an email address nor a comments section with her article.

Oh yeah, sez who?

Nicole Gelinas is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal (, in whose Spring 2007 issue a longer version of this essay appears. Her e-mail address is
212-599-7000 main phone number
212-599-3494 main fax number

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"But truthfully, I don't really know. We've had trouble getting a handle on Building No. 7."
~~ Dr. Shyam Sunder - Acting Director Building and Fire Research Laboratory (NIST)