9/11 Hero’s Death Signals Onslaught of First Responder Tragedies

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fireman's jacket sitting on a firetruck

When firefighters and EMTs of the small hamlet of Versailles in New York State learned of the attack at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, they erupted into action. Together nine first responders raised gasoline money and piled into an ambulance, rescue truck, and wheelchair van. They then headed to Manhattan to join forces with search and rescue teams.

That team of sacrificial servants included Nick and Margaret Ursta.

According to the Pittsburg Gazette, Nick Ursta, 52, paid dearly for his selflessness, succumbing this month to the fatal cancer mesothelioma as a result of breathing in deadly asbestos at Ground Zero.

“He was an amazing man and will be highly missed,” expressed Margaret. “There will never be anyone else like him.”

Ground Zero Exposure Expected to Take Huge Toll

Already 9,500 of the 76,000 first responders have received cancer diagnoses as a result of exposure at the site of one of the worst tragedies in United States’ history.

According to Dr. Michael Crane of the World Trade Center Health Program based at New York’s Sinai Hospital, 3,500 of those cases have been treatable skin cancer, yet these elevated rates rank much higher than the national average of the general population.

“I am concerned about rising cancer rates,” he stated in an NBC report highlighting the crisis.

“Oh, my goodness, dust was everywhere and asbestos was everywhere, we would learn later,” explained the newly widowed Ursta, 51.

Due to a shortage, the couple shared a mask during their three days amidst the cloud and chaos helping to monitor the area, keeping sightseers away, preventing theft, and helping those who were searching for loved ones.

19 Years Later Effects of Killer Fibers Coming to Fruition

Mesothelioma usually develops 20-50 years after exposure to the asbestos fibers, which permeated the air on that fateful day 19 years ago. Now, nearly within the time period of manifestation of the disease in those who risked their lives to save others, experts expect the number of fatal diagnoses to only increase.

“Some of the toxic exposures…the effects of those are now due,” said Crane remarking on the quantities of asbestos at Ground Zero that emanated from the crushed infrastructure of the Twin Towers.

Since the famous fixtures of the New York skyline were built in the 1960s, much of their interior materials included lethal asbestos.

“Everyone had a half-inch of white paste on their face,” recounted Rob Serra, only 21 and a new firefighter who had just completed academy training at the time of the attack.

While Serra suffers from sinus and neurological damage as a result of his time serving at Ground Zero, he has yet to receive a cancer diagnosis.

“You figure two buildings full of glass, asbestos, steel. You could taste it,” he explained. “I hope I have a lot of years left, but common sense and reason tells me I don’t.”

Programs Established to Help Those Afflicted by 9/11 Toxins

Crane works within a program established to assist those suffering from the health effects of the 9/11 disaster.

In 2010, the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act went into effect, establishing the World Trade Center Health Program. It is named for a New York City police officer whose death came as a result of his lifesaving efforts at Ground Zero.

Currently, over 80,000 responders and survivors are enrolled in the program, which serves as an excellent resource for medical and mental health care through providers located throughout the nation.

When a member’s 9/11-related health conditions receive certification, the program pays for all co-pays, deductibles, and out-of-pocket expenses.

Widow Now Fears for Her Health

Meanwhile, following Ursta’s funeral, his wife worries about her own health.

“It feels like a thousand tons sitting on my shoulders,” she said.

Now left alone, she plans on getting tested to determine if she has any undiagnosed health issues as a result of her time serving in the contaminated air of the 9/11 site.

Author:Beth Swantek

Contributing Author at the Mesothelioma Justice Network

Beth Swantek

Beth has been writing about the dangers of asbestos and asbestos-related diseases since 2013. With a background in producing and directing, she now teaches her craft at a private Michigan university. After years of serving as a dedicated caregiver, Beth is passionate about helping those experiencing deep loss — such as those suffering from mesothelioma.

Last modified: November 25, 2019

View 3 Sources
  1. Templeton, D. (2019, Nov.4). 9/11 Hero’s Cancer Death linked to ground zero exposure. Retrieved from: https://www.post-gazette.com/local/region/2019/11/04/nick-ursta-9-11-hero-dies-of-cancer-Ground-Zero-exposure-versailles/stories/201910300142
  2. World Trade Center Health Program (2019). About the Program. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/wtc/about.html
  3. Dunn, L. and Fox, M. (2018, Sept. 11). 9/11 first responders begin to feel attack’s long-term health effects. Retrieved from: https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/9-11-anniversary/9-11-first-responders-begin-feel-attack-s-long-term-n90830