UGLY accusations threaten to permanently fracture New York's heroic post-9/11 legacy - and, perhaps worse, to deny the realities the city faced in those first horrific days, weeks and months.
Some headlines this week treated former Environmental Protection Agency chief Christie Todd Whitman like Osama bid Laden himself. The topic was her U.S. House testimony Monday on the EPA's response to 9/11, where she took criticism for saying, a week after the attacks, that the air Downtown - not directly on the pile, as the WTC site was called - "was safe to breathe."
Interrogators implied that her statement was incorrect at best and at worst a cold lie. One House member even faulted her for bringing up the fact that the attack was personal for her, since her son was in 7 World Trade Center that morning.
Meanwhile, a small band of critics, including some 9/11 survivors, is trying to shame former Mayor Rudy Giuliani for various supposed 9/11-related infractions. They say, among other things, that he was negligent in not ensuring that recovery workers protected themselves with proper respiratory equipment on the "pile."
Here's the missing factor: In a city half shut down and in shock after the terrorist attacks, there were no safe answers.
Was Whitman wrong to say the air Downtown - again, not on the pile - was "safe"?
Of the EPA's tests of air quality in Lower Manhattan in the first month post-9/11, many showed "slightly elevated" levels of asbestos in Battery Park City that were cause for concern; others found "detectable" levels (below the level deemed dangerous in long-term exposure) in Financial District samples. A few spots had higher levels.
Yet the EPA also found that the high-powered vacuuming it was doing, both outside and inside, seemed to bring levels down below "concern" amounts.
Let's say (just for sake of argument) that we'd wanted to be 100 percent sure, rather than relying on any personal judgment whatsoever in an unprecedented situation - so that even "slightly elevated" levels of asbestos anywhere in the area would have made it strictly correct for Whitman to announce that it just wasn't possible to say that the air Downtown was "safe."
Under that standard, the question would have followed: When could we have known if the air was safe enough for financial-industry workers and Battery Park City residents to return? In a month? What about New Year's?
How about by the next May, when recovery workers finished their major operations? (Should the EPA have taken steps to declare Ground Zero a SuperFund site?)
And what does "safe to breathe" mean, anyway? Does it mean that an office worker wouldn't suffer acute heartburn Downtown during those months? That a person wouldn't have, say, a 10 percent greater lifetime risk of cancer later in life?
Remember: We couldn't have known any of this back then - since we're not sure even today.
I went back to work in October 2001 - to the office building closest to Ground Zero. When firefighters trained their hoses on the pile on a windy day, we walked through the spray that diffused around us. All of us could smell that burning-car smell in the air for months and months and months.
Does that mean it wasn't "safe" for us? I have no idea - and, since I'm not a scientist, I'm not sure that it's scientifically possible to know.
But what would the critics have had officials do?
If federal and local officials had declared Downtown a potential hazard to our health, businesses would have had no choice but to relocate elsewhere - quite possibly giving up on Downtown. The judgment call the city and the feds made seemed right at the time - and that was the time that they had to make that decision, not five or six or 10 years later.
It's easy to say today that Rudy Giuliani should have forced recovery workers to wear respirators and should have carefully monitored their hours at the site. But the mayor surely knew back then that it would be impossible to keep firefighters and police officers away from the smoldering pile of steel - or even curtail their shifts so that they could use respirators properly, when they were intent on finding their lost colleagues.
(Remember the outrage and pain that ensued when the city did try to restrict firefighters' access?)
9/11 doesn't render Giuliani's mayoralty off-limits to fair criticism, but his fiercest chastisers should remember: In the face of something previously unimaginable, the mayor made the entire world see that New York would survive.
Today, that action is discounted; the critics say he just did what anyone would have done. But Mayor Ray Nagin didn't do it for New Orleans.
A sober public discussion on city and federal officials' reaction to Ground Zero's challenges would be fine, but it can't happen in this environment. Whitman, for one, must say as little as possible - she's facing three private lawsuits, any one of which could financially ruin her.
Critics and investigators should acknowledge two bare facts before they ask more questions.
* It would have been impossible to close Downtown for months - or years - on end.
* It would have been impossible to keep rescue workers from toiling at Ground Zero as they saw fit.v
The first would have decimated New York. The second would have been cruel, and near-impossible, as a practical matter, to enforce.
That was Downtown's reality in the days after 9/11, even if we don't like to remember it today. And neither Whitman nor Giuliani created it.
Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/seven/06272007/postopinion/opedcolumnists/the_9_11_deniers_opedcolumnists_nicole_gelinas.htm