Years after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, victims are still dying – some were emergency responders whose cancer is believed to be related to toxins in the air that day, and others are distraught because their relatives never made it out of the Twin Towers.
“They didn’t all die on 9/11,” said Connie Agostini in an interview last year after a plaque was dedicated to her brother, North Hudson Regional firefighter Robert Agostini, who died of lung cancer in 2013.
While the media has reported on cases of emergency responders contracting cancer, less visible are people who have died under unusual circumstances that may have been related to the attacks, including the grieving relatives of those who died in the towers.
The ‘Dust Lady’ and McCabe
A plaque went up in the North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue Firehouse on 16th Street in Union City in August 2014 honoring Robert Agostini, a Jersey City native and Weehawken High School graduate. He served initially as a fireman in Union City before regionalization combined the individual towns into North Hudson Regional.
After being part of the initial rescue at Ground Zero, Agostini was treated for lung distress and was eventually diagnosed with lung cancer. He underwent years of treatment and was seen at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. He had to have emergency brain surgery about two to three weeks before he ultimately succumbed to the disease in 2013.
“They didn’t all die on 9/11. They’re dying every day and people don’t realize it.” – Connie Agostini
In various media interviews, she said she was sure the disease was linked to Sept. 11. “I definitely believe it because I haven’t had any illnesses,” she said. “I don’t have high blood pressure…high cholesterol, diabetes.”
And Bayonne resident and emergency responder Mickey McCabe has contracted a life-threatening lung illness.
McCabe, 68, the founder and owner of McCabe’s Ambulance Service, went to the World Trade Center shortly after the attacks to work on the pile of concrete and metal to find survivors. He was already there when the South Tower collapsed.
Like several of those stricken, McCabe is sure that his response to the terrorist attacks is related to his interstitial lung disease, a disorder characterized by progressive scarring of the lung tissue.
“Unfortunately, I have developed what’s called ‘9/11 lung,’ ” he said.
McCabe does not second guess his decision to go to ground zero.
“You’re in there doing what you were put on earth to do,” he said. “You’re in harm’s way.”
However, McCabe noted that Sept. 11 might not have been solely responsible for his disorder. “For 30 years before that I was at every chemical fire in Bayonne,” he said, “every house fire in Bayonne.”
McCabe has had to change his lifestyle. Gone are the days of interacting with the general population, since he is extremely susceptible to infection. Since March, he’s been on oxygen 24/7; when he does leave the house, his oxygen apparatus trails him everywhere he goes.
He’s currently hoping to get on a lung-transplant list. Two of the medical facilities he would deal with, the University of Pennsylvania and New York Presbyterian hospitals, are both relatively close. If he receives the call for the procedure, he can get there in two hours.
But he says he misses using his gift of gab in public situations.
“I can no longer emcee any event; I miss all of that,” he said. “I did all the fundraisers. For anyone who needed an emcee, I would do it. Hopefully within a year or two I can get back to that.”
There are still questions surrounding the death of Edward Kearns of Hoboken.
His wife Donna Bernaerts-Kearns, 44, a lifelong Hoboken resident, worked for the consulting firm Accenture, on the 94th floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower.
According to various articles, she kissed her husband and son Joseph, 11, goodbye that morning before heading across the river to work, and never returned.
It took her husband Edward about a month to believe she was gone, he told the Chicago Tribune in December of 2001.
Around the 10th anniversary of the attacks, he himself died under unusual circumstances at the age of 50.
He was found dead in his apartment on the 500 block of First Street in October 2011. It was weeks before anyone found him, and friends were concerned that they hadn’t heard from him. His adult son was living with relatives in Jersey City by that point.
“Many of Eddie’s friends have been trying to reach him for some time,” wrote one friend on the Hudson Reporter’s website after his death was reported. “He will be missed as we had not heard from in quite some time. People have tried to gain access to his condo, he lived in a gated complex, and access was not easy.”
Police officials said there was lack of evidence pointing to trauma or foul play.
“When I met Ed, he was trying to pull himself back into the world of the living after the loss of his wife who died on 9/11 in the Twin Towers,” wrote a friend, Shelley Timberlake, on an on-line memorial.
She added, “With the massive flooding in Hoboken because of Hurricane Sandy, I was looking up contact information, and came across the notices of his death in 2011, that he had clearly died alone, and had not been found immediately. Ed, I’m very sad that your path took you to such a solitary place. I hope that you have found the peace that had eluded you for so long.”
Calls and emails to relatives in the area were not returned by press time.
A loving son
Then there’s 21- year-old Kevin “Babz” Babakitis of Secaucus. He was in elementary school when his mother, Arlene T. Babakitis, 47, a Port Authority worker, passed away.
In 2011, 10 years after the attacks, Kevin – a former Secaucus High School football player – went missing from Landmark College in Vermont.
He was last seen on March 10 and reported missing by a family member on March 17 when he didn’t return home for spring break.
“Kevin’s body was found this morning by college facilities personnel in a wooded area on campus,” read an excerpt from a mass message sent out to students by President of Landmark College, Lynda Katz. “The Vermont State Police informed the college that at this point there is no reason to suspect foul play. A loss such as this is tragic at any institution, but at a small and close-knit college such as ours, Kevin’s loss is especially personal and profound… I know you join me in extending our deepest sympathies to the Babakitis family.”
Arlene’s sister, Evelyn Pettignano of Secaucus, declined to comment on Kevin’s death, but spoke about grieving the loss of her sister.
“To be honest, I feel for myself and many others that 9/11 is a day that we constantly all remember for the rest of our lives, because it’s not just this day,” she said. “We remember it all the time. The media talks about 9/11, you see pictures of the World Trade Center on TV. And so I think of my sister constantly. She was a big part of my life.”
Pettignano, who worked near the World Trade Center at the time of the attacks, recalls fond memories of herself and Arlene both being pregnant with their first children at the same time, years before the attacks.
“It was hilarious for people on the PATH to see two pregnant women,” she said while laughing.
Where to get help, and statistics
“Anytime that there’s an anniversary of significant loss like 9/11 it’s important for us to be mindful of how people might be impacted by those events,” said Doreen Marshall, a senior director at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Well-known in her field, Marshall said it’s important to be aware that people experience loss differently.
“We know that in 90 percent of people that die by suicide [there’s a connection] to some mental health concern, whether it was diagnosed or not. We were all impacted by 9/11 but for some people it may connect to other personal losses that they’ve had and traumatic events.”
Signs that an individual may be considering suicide include increased use of alcohol or drugs, acting recklessly, withdrawing from activities, isolating from family and friends, and sleeping too much or too little.
If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide, they are encouraged to not leave the person alone, remove any fire arms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt.
A free and confidential service for those at suicidal risk or emotional distress is 1-800-273-TALK (8255), the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
In 2014, the World Trade Center Health Registry – a cohort study created by The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the New York City Health Department in response to 9/11 – reported that analysis of 41,000 Registry enrollees found that about one in five suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder nine to 10 years after the attacks.
A separate study concluded, “Enrollees who reported having both PTSD and depression were more likely to have increased 9/11 exposure, be unemployed, have lower social support and quality of life and have more unmet mental health care needs. It is common for traumatized populations to suffer from both PTSD and depression; the combination is often associated with functional impairment.”
The physical health effects also have been studied. During the eighth anniversary of the attacks, 9-11 Health Now reported that 817 World Trade Center workers had died from various causes. About 40,000 were enrolled in medical monitoring and 20,000 were “sick and under treatment.”
The World Trade Center Health Registry estimates over 400,000 people were exposed to a host of toxins including asbestos during the attacks and recovery.