Richie Manetta of Brooklyn was one of those whose death is believed to have been caused by exposure to toxins at Ground Zero.
Rain darkened the uniforms of the New York Fire Department’s Color Guard as they marched down Batchelder Street in front of Good Shepherd Roman Catholic Church in the Marine Park section of Brooklyn on October 15, 2009. “Taps” drifted from the Emerald Society Pipes and Drums. As 500 civilians gathered beneath their umbrellas, row upon row of firefighters stood uncovered in the street, seemingly oblivious to the downpour.
Between the firefighters moved a casket, borne on the backs of the sturdy men of Engine 276, Ladder 156, Battalion 33. Inside lay their friend, their brother, their fellow firefighter for 13 years, Richard “Richie” Manetta. Someone brought forth Manetta’s helmet and presented it to his wife, Maria, and son, Christian, only two years old. “The Highway,” as the battalion is known, led the procession to the Cemetery of the Resurrection in Staten Island, where Monsignor Tom Brady, a former FDNY Chaplain, offered his final commendation in words of farewell.
“Let us bring Richard to his place of rest,” he said.
Manetta was 44 years old when he died a few days earlier, having succumbed to an aggressive form of cancer that took his life just ten months after his initial diagnosis. The Uniformed Firefighters Association, the union of firefighters in the department, registered his death on its website as a 65-2, meaning that while Manetta was an active firefighter at the time, his death did not occur in the line of duty. Despite that, Stephen J. Cassidy, the union’s president, said in a statement released on the same day as Manetta’s funeral: “Firefighter Richard Manetta sacrificed his life for his fellow New Yorkers and we must never forget.”
Manetta had worked in the rescue and recovery operation following the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Like so many Ground Zero workers, Manetta developed an illness years later that was ultimately attributed to his prolonged exposure to toxic substances above the rubble at the site. He would be neither the first nor the last firefighter, first-responder, or rescue worker to lose his life to such an illness. Compared to the 343 FDNY members who died on September 11, his sacrifice came later, but was no less real.
As such, his will be one of 40 names memorialized on a new plaque to be unveiled at 9 MetroTech Center, FDNY Headquarters in Downtown Brooklyn on September 8, an honor previously reserved only for direct line of duty deaths. These “WTC DEATH” 65-2s will join the names of the FDNY members who were killed on 9/11. Nearly ten years later, the attacks are still claiming lives.
“Unfortunately, there will be hundreds and hundreds of names that are going to be on that memorial,” said Cassidy in 2010, “and it is very likely there will be more than 343 when it’s all said and done.”
The designation 65-2 is more than ceremonial. Listing firefighters who died after being forced to retire due to illness or injury associated with their work at Ground Zero in that category means that more substantial benefits are available to their families because it’s as if they died while on active duty. However, that money only goes so far.
On October 3, 2009, “The Highway” held “A Cruise for Richie” to help defray the cost of his treatment. “Richie is now in a fight for his life,” read the event’s website. “His firehouse is reaching out to the entire FDNY brotherhood and their friends to help relieve the financial burden that he and his family are dealing with.”
A friend provided his ferry boat for a floating party on Jamaica Bay, while another raffled off a few of Richie’s beloved vintage cars, and “The Highway” rallied around one of their own. Manetta was at that point too sick to attend, but hundreds boarded that boat to show their support.
“Richie was such a good-hearted person,” said Captain Pat Sobota. “Even when he was sick in the hospital, he was always worrying about other people.”
George Storz, a firefighter who grew up with Manetta in Mill Basin, convinced Manetta to leave his job as a plumber for the Transit Authority and join the Fire Department in 1996.
Five years later, on the morning of September 11, 2001, Manetta arrived at Ground Zero following the collapse of the second tower, but just in time to see 7 World Trade Center, an often overlooked 47-story building, crumble to the ground. Its collapse not only launched its own dust cloud down Vesey Street, but also churned up the debris from the rubble of the Twin Towers.
“We were literally chewing on that stuff,” said Firefighter Rob Angelone.
Manetta remained “on the pile” for the rest of the day, as the FDNY implemented 24-hour shifts to staff the rescue and recovery operation, with nothing to protect his lungs from the intake of pulverized cement, glass, asbestos, and lead, among other aerosolized particles, as well as toxic fumes from burning jet fuel. According to Angelone, who returned to Ground Zero no more than ten times, Manetta was there “more than the average” firefighter.
Not long after life returned to normal, Angelone became the reluctant broker of his sister’s introduction to Manetta at a firehouse Christmas party. “The guys gave me a hard time, but I got more than a brother-in-law out of the deal,” said Angelone. “I got a brother.”
Years later, a bump on Richie’s upper thigh—initially thought to be a hernia—was revealed to be a malignant tumor. The cancer spread to his testicles, lungs, and brain. Angelone found himself with a harrowingly close view of the rapid decline of a firefighter turned friend, now family member.
In the midst of the ensuing battery of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, the Manettas made a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, a small town in the foothills of the Pyrenees made famous by the supposed apparition of the Virgin Mary in the 19th century. A devout Catholic, Manetta bathed in spring water from the Grotto of Massabielle, said to have miraculous healing powers for people of faith. While the visit failed to spare Manetta’s life, Angelone nevertheless recognized a small miracle as he stood beside his brother-in-law’s deathbed: an FDNY chaplain who had visited Manetta earlier that day inexplicably returned around midnight.
“You know,” the chaplain said, “I don’t know why, but I just feel like I have to be here.”
The chaplain, a Catholic priest, offered Manetta his Last Rites, anointing him with oil as Angelone, Maria, Manetta’s sister, and his other brother-in-law held hands in a prayer circle around him. He took his last breath around 2 a.m.
Manetta died within five days of two other Ground Zero workers with similar afflictions—New York police officers Robert Grossman, 44, and Corey Diaz, 37. The proximity of their deaths became a short-lived catalyst for renewed support for the 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, or James Zadroga Act, so named in honor of the first NYPD officer whose death was attributed to his exposure to toxins in the dust and debris at Ground Zero.
Although President Barack Obama signed the James Zadroga Act into law on January 2, 2011, after a lengthy partisan battle in Congress in which Senate Republicans seeking to reduce the federal budget deficit steadfastly refused to allow any spending increases, Manetta would still not be covered if he were alive today.
While the legislation provides $4.3 billion in financial aid to ailing Ground Zero workers and their families for treatment and compensation for certain illnesses, mainly respiratory diseases, cancer was excluded as part of a compromise to ensure the bill’s passage. Cancer is such a common disease—one in two American men and one in three American women will develop cancer in their lifetime—and can take upwards of ten years to develop. The Zadroga Act mandated further study, accounting for the potential lag time between exposures to toxic substances like asbestos and emerging diseases.
But in a report released last month, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health decided that “insufficient evidence exists” to establish a direct line of cause and effect and add cancer to the list of health conditions covered by the legislation.
“This is disappointing news for 9/11 responders and rescuers who tragically have been diagnosed with cancer since the attacks and are suffering day to day and awaiting help,” said New York Representatives Carolyn Maloney, Jerrold Nadler and Peter King, co-authors of the James Zadroga Act, in a joint statement. “The collapse of the trade center towers released a cloud of poisons, including carcinogens, throughout Lower Manhattan and we fully expect that cancers will be covered under our legislation.”
“Just because they haven’t found the link,” said Monsignor John Delendick, FDNY Chaplain, “doesn’t mean it’s not there.”
Relief might be on the way. On September 3, The Lancet, one of the world’s most respected medical journals, published a study led by Dr. David Prezant, the FDNY’s chief medical officer and co-director of their WTC Medical Monitoring and Treatment Programs. The study compared cancer rates among “WTC-exposed” firefighters to both the general male population and non-exposed firefighters.
The report cites a 10 percent higher cancer rate among firefighters who served at Ground Zero when compared to the general male population and a 32 percent higher rate when compared to non-exposed firefighters, interpreted as a “modest excess” of cancer cases.
“An association between WTC exposure and cancer is biologically plausible, because some contaminants in the WTC dust…are known carcinogens,” the report said. “Although some contaminants could cause cancer directly, WTC exposure could also trigger chronic inflammation…Such inflammation could lead to cancer.”
While firefighters and their families await a more conclusive study , “The Highway” will remember Manetta. “Richie was everything you could want,” said Sobota, “in a firefighter and a friend.”