2003-10-03 / Community

Retired Rockaway Firefighter Addresses ‘The Cough’

By Brendan Brosh
Retired Rockaway Firefighter Addresses ‘The Cough’ By Brendan Brosh


Speaking to Belle Harbor resident Palmer Doyle you get the impression that he is a man charged with a mission. As one of thousands of brave firefighters who worked in the pit of the World Trade Center, Doyle feels an indescribable camaraderie with the emergency service people he shared those days with. His loyalty to those people continues to this day.

After working four of the first seven days at the WTC site, Palmer came down with a case of bronchitis. Initially he thought nothing of it; perhaps one of his children had brought home an illness from school. As his symptoms progressively got worse, however, he realized the cause of his bronchitis might be a bit more sinister.

Dozens of other people who worked at Ground Zero began to develop a similar condition and it became known as "the cough" in firemen circles.

Contacting the United Firefighters Association, Doyle found a union overburdened with funerals, memorials: trying to organize funds for fallen firefighter’s families. After speaking to the union’s legal representation, Doyle volunteered to lead the UFA’s response to the WTC cough.

Doyle contacted his friend and columnist Dennis Duggan of Newsday to accompany him to the law offices of Godosky and Gentile. Having worked with the union before, the firm was eager to assist the UFA and investigate the health concerns of its members.

When asked why he took up the cause, Palmer says, "I know too many guys who got sick." In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, hundreds of firefighters, ironworkers, police officers and other emergency services workers have come down with COPD, or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.

Palmer remembers pulling up to Ground Zero in a bus with fifty other firefighters on September 15, and being supplied with only one mask. (The youngest member of the group was given the mask.) The following day only seven masks were provided for the busload of firemen.

By that Sunday, Christine Todd Whitman, the former director of the Environmental Protection Agency, had said the air was safe to breathe in the disaster area. When questioned about the sicknesses suffered by workers in the pit, Whitman would later blame them for working without masks.

As the veritable spokesman for the ailing firefighters, Palmer began to appear on nearly every media outlet. Appearing with Marcia Kramer on CBS, Paula Zahn of CNN and Bill O’Reilly on the O’Reilly Factor of Fox News, Palmer Doyle has brought considerable publicity to the issue. Palm­er even cracks a smile when he recalls his meeting with Whitman on CNN. "I confronted her with facts and she walked out on the interview."

Friend and Newsday writer Duggan has done his part and written almost half a dozen articles since October 2001 about the World Trade Center cough.

Now that legal claims are beginning to be addressed, Doyle is grateful that the Ironworkers union monitored the air quality at the pit. "We didn’t know what we were breathing while we were down there. We inhaled a lot of stuff at the WTC site."

Like all Rockaway people, Palmer’s life was dramatically altered on Nov­ember 12, 2001 with the crash of Flight 587. Jumping out of the shower and running to the scene, Palmer worked day and night, eventually getting injured.

Palmer believes had it not been for the make-up of the community the fire after the crash could have been a lot worse. "Everyone pitched in, firemen, cops, telephone workers, everyone. Rock­away really is a special place."

Joking about his injuries Palmer says, "I used to laugh at people who could tell when it’s going to rain, now I’m one of them with a rod in my neck."

Forced to retire due to his injuries, Doyle misses his former job tremendously. After 15 years in the force, mostly at Engine 254 in Sheepshead Bay, Palmer’s a bit somber when he speaks of the profession he loved. "I didn’t want to retire. I miss being a firefighter everyday of my life."

With retirement, however, Doyle has devoted his energy to resolution and answers on the WTC cough. "We’ve had about 1500 guys retire since Nov­ember 2001. These are record numbers. Two hundred have retired due to respiratory problems and a further 300-500 are waiting to retire because of the same problem."

Palmer ‘s concerns he says lie with the families of people suffering from the ailments associated with Ground Zero. "There are a lot of people with families that need to be supported. If they are forced out of work due to their sickness who will help them?"

Initially people injured in the 48-hour window after the collapse could put in a claim into the federal fund. Palmer’s group fought diligently to extend the claims window. "We asked all firefighters to file a notice of claim. If any long term illness should occur, we’d be covered."

After September 11, every firefighter had to have a WTC medical by January 2002. Follow-up medicals were promised to firemen who completed the physical. With the funding cuts, however, follow-up visits for re­tired firefighters were cut.

Doyle contacted Councilman Joseph Addabo and Congressman Anthony Wein­er. After consultation with Sen­ator Hillary Clinton’s office, funding was arranged for the medicals for retired firefighters.

As claims to the federal fund have to be filed by December 2003, Palmer urges everyone who worked at Ground Zero to see a doctor as lasting health effects can occur. Palmer refers to a quote by a leading American pulmon­ary expert who referred to the WTC site as having the ‘greatest cornucopia of cancer causing toxins in the history of the United States or the world.’

Palmer almost speaks casually about seeing three neurosurgeons and his frequent media contacts. But he does confide that he hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in two years.

The Doyle family is also proud of Palmer’s brother Robert, a firefighter in Brooklyn who was just awarded a medal of valor for rescuing people.

As a past president of the 100th Prec­inct community council, Doyle has been active in the Rockaway community for years. When asked what he’ll do next, Palmer says, "the beach has become my new pet project."

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