9/11 firefighter faces cancer: His vocal cords were harmed in surgery

9/11 firefighter faces cancer
His vocal cords were harmed in surgery

Monitor staff

September 21, 2008 - 12:00 am

Bernie Cornell speaks in a raspy voice, without the boom it had before.

That was one of Cornell's trademarks, a voice that wrapped you in a bear hug, no matter the topic.

Cornell's thyroid cancer is the topic these days. And the potential connection between the Sept. 11 attacks and his illness. And his future as a lieutenant with the New York City Fire Department. He's based in Brooklyn.

Cornell, once a slugging third baseman at Merrimack Valley High and Plymouth State College, was diagnosed with cancer last spring, nearly seven years after he helped clean up the mess in lower Manhattan.

His thyroid was removed in June, leaving him cancer free. But his vocal cords were damaged during the surgery, leaving him with no voice, not even a whisper.

He can speak now, but Cornell remains out of work. The spirit and hand movements behind the voice and words are still there, but Cornell can't be a firefighter again unless he can communicate clearly. And there are no guarantees.

He traces his cancer to the terrorist attack at the World Trade Center. The link between the air those in the area breathed and various ailments they now suffer is more apparent as the years pass.

Three other 9/11 firefighters who work with Cornell at the firehouse in Brooklyn also have cancer. A fundraiser for the four of them will be held next month.

"They always said it would take about seven years for things to start popping up," Cornell said last week from his home on Long Island. "And it's not just firefighters, not at all. Anyone who was down in the pit that day could be involved."

Cornell, a father of three young children, is not a volunteer or part-time firefighter, nor is he someone who planned on putting in some time, then moving on to something else.

He's a firefighter, period. His father, brothers, cousins and uncles all were or are firefighters. He fought fires as a student at Plymouth State College, working in the town's station when he wasn't hitting fastballs over the fence.

He resettled in New York, where he grew up, after living in the Concord area for 10 years. His parents and brothers have since relocated there as well.

Cornell married a Long Island woman named Annemarie and had life pretty well sorted out. He played in the softball games and attended the picnics that helped bond firefighters into a tight fraternity.

Cornell was on duty in Woodside, Queens, the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, a clear day. He heard the scanner, switched on the TV and saw that one of the towers at the World Trade Center had been hit by something.

"We got our ticket to go to the call at 9:02," Cornell said. "You're going in like a task force going into the towers. We were the first ones to the (Midtown) tunnel from Queens, ready to go in. One of chiefs got word that they were checking the tunnel to make sure it wasn't booby-trapped. They were looking for a secondary device."

The next 35 minutes were crucial. Cornell, the driver, and four colleagues waited while the tunnel was checked. Then they drove through, arriving just after the South Tower had collapsed. The North Tower was smoking; it fell at 10:28 a.m. Cornell was 1½ blocks away.

"We all just started running," Cornell said. "Anything that floated down was part of the building. Anything that came down quick was a human jumping."

Cornell angled toward the Hudson River in case he had to submerge himself in water. He ducked inside a school to avoid the cloud speeding toward him, which he said was cartoon-like, "a building trying to catch you from behind."

He caught his breath, feeling safer since he had outrun the debris field. He left the school, unaware of the toxicity in the air.

"You deal with your company, deal with your house, deal with your group, then you deal with your job," Cornell said. "It's the pecking order to see who's around. All were accounted for."

Cornell described a scene of pulverized concrete, of exploding cars on one street and burnt cars with nothing left to burn on others.

How strange, Cornell thought, that there were no office desks visible, no computers or chairs or anything else associated with so much equipment and furnishings in a 110-story high-rise.

"Each floor is an acre," Cornell said. "That's 220 acres, and you can't find a desk."

He continued: "After the buildings came down, everything got quiet. With so much concrete and dust, it was like a blanket of snow on the ground. The snow muffled the sound of anything being moved around. An ambulance would come down, and all you could hear was the snow chains on the tires."

Cornell worked near Ground Zero for months, helping to spread fire hoses, pumping water, clearing debris and so on. He said steel in the pit remained hot for at least two months.

He spoke of the "brothers" he'd lost that day, like the firefighter who used to visit him in New Hampshire, and the firefighter who took Cornell's dad's spot after his father retired, and the firefighter who was Annemarie's cousin.

And he wondered what made him so lucky.

"Which way you ran that day," Cornell said, "determined if you lived or died."

Last summer, the New York Post reported that at least eight firefighters who responded to the attack or helped in its aftermath had contracted thyroid cancer within the previous five years.

The National Cancer Institute, the Post said, placed the nationwide rate at 4.3 men per 100,000, far lower than the eight cases reported among the 11,000 New York City firefighters at the time. Eighty post-9/11 workers have died of cancer, according to a recent report by New York State's World Trade Center Responder Fatality Investigation Program.

The rate of thyroid cancer didn't surprise Cornell and his wife. A friend who is a firefighter had long speculated that his own thyroid cancer, diagnosed in 2003, was caused by his work at the site. They knew that firefighters had been coughing for years, that asthma and other breathing disorders were on the rise.

They wondered about the air breathed by rescue personnel. There was the benzene from jet fuel, acids, insoluble particles, high-temperature organic materials, all coming from the most heavily computerized buildings in the world.

"The last seven years, you're walking on pins and needles," Annemarie said. "We always expected something to happen. We always wondered what would happen and when because of what was down there."

Said Cornell, "That night, the whole day felt like you had insulation all over your bare skin, a fiberglass feeling. There was something on our skin that whole day."

Last spring, a routine chest X-ray revealed that Cornell had thyroid cancer. Two other firefighters from his Brooklyn firehouse were diagnosed with cancer around the same time, one with lymphoma, another with prostrate cancer. A fourth member was diagnosed with leukemia last winter.

Cornell's thyroid was removed in June, and a portion of his vocal cords, so close to the thyroid gland, was damaged during surgery.

Cornell's voice, always a presence, always a force, disappeared. Now he'd whistle or flash lights somewhere in the house to signal his family. His fire buddies poked fun, saying his family had finally gotten a break from his nonstop chatter.

His voice has returned, enough for him to talk on the phone and converse face to face, as long as he's in close.

But he needs to project better to get his job back. And he has no idea if the city of New York will cover possible unemployment insurance and college tuition for his children.

As Annemarie says, "We haven't gotten a straight answer yet. They're very vague. They're not saying yes, they're not saying no."

A fundraiser, scheduled for Nov. 1 in Wantagh, Long Island, will raise money to help defray medical costs for the Bradford Street 4, as Cornell and his fellow firefighters are known.

Cornell, meanwhile, worries about the future. He worries that something might be hiding in his system, something that could surface later.

"The question is, what happens 10 years from now, when the next thing comes up that's 9/11 related," Cornell said. "It's more the future that you're worried about now."

If healthy, if that booming voice returns and allows him to bark instructions during a fire, fine. If not, Cornell will have to look for work elsewhere. He's 43 years old.

"I don't want to go out and do some other job," Cornell said. "I want to stay right here, go to work, have a good time and put out fires."

Ray Duckler can be reached at rduckler@cmonitor.com.