I was compelled to explore Vito's journey in the aftermath of his WTC disaster experiences, because I was humbled by his bravery and driven by a need to better understand someone who instinctively risks his life to help others. Could Vito remain the same person after going through the trauma of 9/11, the physical and emotional stress of daunting recovery work, and the mounting pressures of his job as a homicide detective in a changing world of increased terrorism?
As Vito himself admits, cops are good at hiding their feelings, so it was hard for me to really know how well he was doing. He, unquestionably, was helped by the vital support of his wife Lisa, family and friends; but he also had a personal "therapy" that helped him get through a very tough time. Vito shares a special bond with a group of 11-year-olds he considers his daughters - the soccer team he is so dedicated to and has been coaching for eight years. He and those close to him believe this special relationship prevented him from sinking into a deep depression after the tragedy. When I first began shooting the documentary, I thought this was the story I was going to tell.
Approximately 40,000 recovery workers toiled in the toxic rubble at Ground Zero and the Fresh Kills Landfill searching for victims' remains, hoping to bring some closure to the families of those who perished. Vito was one of almost 7,000 NYPD detectives assigned lengthy rotations at both sites and the morgue, but mostly at the landfill for almost eight months. Unfortunately, these workers were inhaling noxious dust, toxic fumes, asbestos and countless other harmful substances. These potentially dangerous toxins can remain internally in one's lungs and elsewhere in the body for long periods of time, possibly causing severe damage and disease years or even decades later.
Vito, like many of these workers, almost immediately began suffering from long bouts of sinus infections and lung ailments, seeking various medical treatments. Things seemed to improve somewhat as he was treated with different antibiotics; also as time went on, additional safety and health precautions were taken at the landfill site. However, some symptoms still lingered on even after the work had stopped.
There is much concern about the toxins that the detectives were exposed to at the Fresh Kills landfill. They were sifting through toxic debris taken from Ground Zero that was being mixed with the already toxic environment of a landfill-at times the dirt was "bubbling." Some were on this assignment for almost a year. The EPA's initial findings of a "safe" environment surrounding the WTC site have since been found to be "inaccurate." Det. Michael Palladino, Pres. of the Detectives' Endowment Association, is alarmed by the number of detectives who have reported WTC-related illnesses and is worried about their future health --"Who knows what our detectives were sifting through out there."
I became more focused on Vito's physical health as his sinus ailments and cough lingered into the second year. I also became aware of some of the debilitating illnesses that other recovery workers were suffering. Yet, Vito couldn't be convinced to seek further medical attention, and this seemed to be a common attitude among most of his cop buddies -- if they're not incapacitated, they don't need to see a doctor. I was surprised to learn that by August 2003, only 800 of the 7000 NYPD detectives had gone through the WTC Worker & Volunteer Medical Screening program. I finally convinced Vito to go for a medical evaluation at the Mt. Sinai Medical Screening center in New York in September 2003. Many months later, I learned that over 400 detectives had reported some type of WTC-related illness --- which most likely means there could be hundreds more. The ailments range from sinus and lung disease to rare cancers. There is also an increase of post-traumatic stress syndrome, as well as a "spike" in suicides among detectives in the post-9/11 era.
Though Vito's health is compromised and there remains a possibility of more serious disease in his future, he claims he'd "do it again 100 times" if he thought he could save anyone or bring closure to the victims' families. Many recovery workers who feel the same are suffering debilitating illnesses, and many may die. I hope this film brings further awareness to the health issues facing the thousands of recovery workers-as well as people who lived and worked in the area-and that individuals who could benefit from early intervention will get the medical or alternative treatment they may need.
I'm grateful that making this film has brought me closer to Vito and his family. I remain very proud of my brother-in-law, and I've learned to appreciate him even more. I worry not only about his health, but also each day that he works at his job as an NYPD officer, especially when I know he's on anti-terrorism duty.
Ultimately, Vito's journey helped me to deal with my own sorrow about the tragedy. I've worked in Manhattan for many years and have always considered myself a "New Yorker." Though not in the city on September 11th, I was connected to the disaster in many ways. My daughter, then a freshman at NYU, watched the horror unfold through her dorm room window only blocks away. As I was grieving for the thousands of lives lost, I was worried how this tragic experience would affect her, and heartbroken that her hopeful dreams of a new college experience had been shattered. There was a loss of innocence, and the world would never again be the same. My brother lives in Tribeca with his wife and young daughter, they witnessed the disaster from the moment the first plane flew low overhead crashing into the tower. Not only did they live with the smoky dust and acrid smell for months afterwards, they also experienced their neighborhood being transformed into a staging area for emergency workers and the National Guard. The debris from Ground Zero was loaded onto barges a block away, on its way to the Staten Island Landfill. My cousin also lives in Tribeca and owns a historic tavern there; he was close enough to be enveloped in the dust cloud and has made it through a tough time as well. My father worked in 4 WTC for 18 years at the Cotton Exchange before retiring in 1995 - he died just weeks before 9/11, being spared from living through what would have been a devastating reality.
The journey towards recovery continues, not only for the families of the victims and the rescue and recovery workers, but for all of us who were touched in some way by the tragedy. Sadly, the harsh reality is that the WTC disaster will continue to claim many more lives in the years to come.