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9/11 health crisis continues: New York cleaner fights cancer 15 years later

Merita Zejnuni was working nearby when the towers fell. It wasnt until 2009 that she began treatment but I dont want anyone to feel sorry for me

On September 11 2001, Merita Zejnuni began her shift at 7am, cleaning offices at Goldman Sachs on Maiden Lane in lower Manhattan. At 8.46am, she was in an internal stairwell. She didnt hear a hijacked passenger jet slamming into the nearby north tower of the World Trade Center.

At 9.03am, though, she was on the 31st floor of her building. She saw a large plane speed past the window. It was the second hijacked jet, and it crashed into the south tower. Soon after, with sickening roars, the twin towers came down. Outside the Goldman Sachs office, the sky went dark.

I was screaming, she said, screaming We are going to die, the stuff was crashing on the window, probably it was pieces of bodies and planes and building, and so many papers, papers

Terrified office workers came pouring into the building, many covered in ash and soot. Zejnuni, who is now 52, handed out small towels and paper face masks and helped people clean themselves up. Then all the bankers began trying to make their way home.

In one hour, the building was empty, she said.

The boss of her cleaning company asked her and a few others to stay, to clean up. She did not sleep or go home for two and a half days, after which she was reunited with her 12-year-old son at their apartment in Queens.

In the days and nights she cleaned, she said, she had no masks left to use herself and no access to a shower or clean clothes. Soldiers stationed on the street outside gave her food. She was covered in dust; it filled her mouth and throat.

It was disgusting, she said. I looked like a ghost. I was gray from head to foot.

She took a day off, then came back to work.

Two months ago, despite an excellent health history and no record of cancer in her family, Zejnuni was found to have breast cancer. She has never smoked, but the doctors told her she also had a spot on her lung.

Two weeks before she sat down in Central Park to talk to the Guardian on Thursday night, she had a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction using flesh from her abdomen. She was already back at work.

I would cough so violently, like an old lady

9/11
Smoke and ash engulf lower Manhattan on September 11 2001. Photograph: Greg Semendinger/AP

Zejnuni is one of many ordinary workers who dealt with the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks but who have never been publicly hailed as heroes like the firefighters, cops and workers who cleared the wreckage itself.

Certified as sick by the federal World Trade Center Health Program, created by the federal government in 2011, she sometimes still wheezes.

In 2003, I got a painful cough, she said. I would cough so violently, like an old lady.

Thousands are suffering in a post-9/11 health crisis. Many have died or are dying, despite government officials insisting in 2001 that the air in lower Manhattan was safe.

After the towers fell, Zejnuni managed to get a call through to her sister. I told her, if anything happened to me, to look after my son, she said.

Some time after 9/11, her company put her on night shifts, working virtually alone. Zejnuni said she asked her union if they could arrange for her to work days, as she was traumatized by her experiences after the attacks.

A guy there told me, Oh, that 9/11 bullshit youre lucky to have a job, she said. I had to carry on working nights.

Zejnuni moved to the US from her native Albania in 1997 and earned US citizenship. On 9/11, when she was asked to stay in lower Manhattan and work while most fled, she agreed because, she said: I saw the army outside and I thought, Lets clean up in this country that opened its doors for me and gave me opportunity. I would give my life for this country.

For six years, her chronic cough was barely treated. Her chest was so painful, and her post-9/11 anxiety so acute, that although she never stopped working, she became depressed, drank too much and even contemplated suicide, she said.

Finally, she saw a poster on the train about specialist healthcare for 9/11 survivors. In 2009, she began receiving treatment at Mount Sinai hospital, one of the main centers looking after those affected by the attacks of 15 years ago.

The doctors and nurses treated me like a human being, she said. She stopped drinking and her self-confidence began to return. In October, she will consult with her doctors again, to assess the state of her cancer.

I dont want anyone to feel sorry for me, she said. I just want to work, but sometimes my body makes it difficult. I think back to those soldiers standing outside in the debris. They were so young and they would smile and say, Hello, ladies. I wonder if they are even still alive.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/sep/11/911-health-crisis-a-new-york-cleaner-fights-cancer-15-years-later