Bernie Cornell speaks in a raspy voice,
without the boom it had before.
That was one of Cornell's trademarks, a
voice that wrapped you in a bear hug, no matter the topic.
Cornell's thyroid cancer is the topic these
days. And the potential connection between the Sept. 11 attacks and
his illness. And his future as a lieutenant with the New York City
Fire Department. He's based in Brooklyn.
Cornell, once a slugging third baseman at
Merrimack Valley High and Plymouth State College, was diagnosed with
cancer last spring, nearly seven years after he helped clean up the
mess in lower Manhattan.
His thyroid was removed in June, leaving
him cancer free. But his vocal cords were damaged during the
surgery, leaving him with no voice, not even a whisper.
He can speak now, but Cornell remains out
of work. The spirit and hand movements behind the voice and words
are still there, but Cornell can't be a firefighter again unless he
can communicate clearly. And there are no guarantees.
He traces his cancer to the terrorist
attack at the World Trade Center. The link between the air those in
the area breathed and various ailments they now suffer is more
apparent as the years pass.
Three other 9/11 firefighters who work with
Cornell at the firehouse in Brooklyn also have cancer. A fundraiser
for the four of them will be held next month.
"They always said it would take about seven
years for things to start popping up," Cornell said last week from
his home on Long Island. "And it's not just firefighters, not at
all. Anyone who was down in the pit that day could be involved."
Cornell, a father of three young children,
is not a volunteer or part-time firefighter, nor is he someone who
planned on putting in some time, then moving on to something else.
He's a firefighter, period. His father,
brothers, cousins and uncles all were or are firefighters. He fought
fires as a student at Plymouth State College, working in the town's
station when he wasn't hitting fastballs over the fence.
He resettled in New York, where he grew up,
after living in the Concord area for 10 years. His parents and
brothers have since relocated there as well.
Cornell married a Long Island woman named
Annemarie and had life pretty well sorted out. He played in the
softball games and attended the picnics that helped bond
firefighters into a tight fraternity.
Cornell was on duty in Woodside, Queens,
the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, a clear day. He heard the scanner,
switched on the TV and saw that one of the towers at the World Trade
Center had been hit by something.
"We got our ticket to go to the call at
9:02," Cornell said. "You're going in like a task force going into
the towers. We were the first ones to the (Midtown) tunnel from
Queens, ready to go in. One of chiefs got word that they were
checking the tunnel to make sure it wasn't booby-trapped. They were
looking for a secondary device."
The next 35 minutes were crucial. Cornell,
the driver, and four colleagues waited while the tunnel was checked.
Then they drove through, arriving just after the South Tower had
collapsed. The North Tower was smoking; it fell at 10:28 a.m.
Cornell was 1½ blocks away.
"We all just started running," Cornell
said. "Anything that floated down was part of the building. Anything
that came down quick was a human jumping."
Cornell angled toward the Hudson River in
case he had to submerge himself in water. He ducked inside a school
to avoid the cloud speeding toward him, which he said was
cartoon-like, "a building trying to catch you from behind."
He caught his breath, feeling safer since
he had outrun the debris field. He left the school, unaware of the
toxicity in the air.
"You deal with your company, deal with your
house, deal with your group, then you deal with your job," Cornell
said. "It's the pecking order to see who's around. All were
Cornell described a scene of pulverized
concrete, of exploding cars on one street and burnt cars with
nothing left to burn on others.
How strange, Cornell thought, that there
were no office desks visible, no computers or chairs or anything
else associated with so much equipment and furnishings in a
"Each floor is an acre," Cornell said.
"That's 220 acres, and you can't find a desk."
He continued: "After the buildings came
down, everything got quiet. With so much concrete and dust, it was
like a blanket of snow on the ground. The snow muffled the sound of
anything being moved around. An ambulance would come down, and all
you could hear was the snow chains on the tires."
Cornell worked near Ground Zero for months,
helping to spread fire hoses, pumping water, clearing debris and so
on. He said steel in the pit remained hot for at least two months.
He spoke of the "brothers" he'd lost that
day, like the firefighter who used to visit him in New Hampshire,
and the firefighter who took Cornell's dad's spot after his father
retired, and the firefighter who was Annemarie's cousin.
And he wondered what made him so lucky.
"Which way you ran that day," Cornell said,
"determined if you lived or died."
Last summer, the New York Post reported
that at least eight firefighters who responded to the attack or
helped in its aftermath had contracted thyroid cancer within the
previous five years.
The National Cancer Institute, the Post
said, placed the nationwide rate at 4.3 men per 100,000, far lower
than the eight cases reported among the 11,000 New York City
firefighters at the time. Eighty post-9/11 workers have died of
cancer, according to a recent report by New York State's World Trade
Center Responder Fatality Investigation Program.
The rate of thyroid cancer didn't surprise
Cornell and his wife. A friend who is a firefighter had long
speculated that his own thyroid cancer, diagnosed in 2003, was
caused by his work at the site. They knew that firefighters had been
coughing for years, that asthma and other breathing disorders were
on the rise.
They wondered about the air breathed by
rescue personnel. There was the benzene from jet fuel, acids,
insoluble particles, high-temperature organic materials, all coming
from the most heavily computerized buildings in the world.
"The last seven years, you're walking on
pins and needles," Annemarie said. "We always expected something to
happen. We always wondered what would happen and when because of
what was down there."
Said Cornell, "That night, the whole day
felt like you had insulation all over your bare skin, a fiberglass
feeling. There was something on our skin that whole day."
Last spring, a routine chest X-ray revealed
that Cornell had thyroid cancer. Two other firefighters from his
Brooklyn firehouse were diagnosed with cancer around the same time,
one with lymphoma, another with prostrate cancer. A fourth member
was diagnosed with leukemia last winter.
Cornell's thyroid was removed in June, and
a portion of his vocal cords, so close to the thyroid gland, was
damaged during surgery.
Cornell's voice, always a presence, always
a force, disappeared. Now he'd whistle or flash lights somewhere in
the house to signal his family. His fire buddies poked fun, saying
his family had finally gotten a break from his nonstop chatter.
His voice has returned, enough for him to
talk on the phone and converse face to face, as long as he's in
But he needs to project better to get his
job back. And he has no idea if the city of New York will cover
possible unemployment insurance and college tuition for his
As Annemarie says, "We haven't gotten a
straight answer yet. They're very vague. They're not saying yes,
they're not saying no."
A fundraiser, scheduled for Nov. 1 in
Wantagh, Long Island, will raise money to help defray medical costs
for the Bradford Street 4, as Cornell and his fellow firefighters
Cornell, meanwhile, worries about the
future. He worries that something might be hiding in his system,
something that could surface later.
"The question is, what happens 10 years
from now, when the next thing comes up that's 9/11 related," Cornell
said. "It's more the future that you're worried about now."
If healthy, if that booming voice returns
and allows him to bark instructions during a fire, fine. If not,
Cornell will have to look for work elsewhere. He's 43 years old.
"I don't want to go out and do some other
job," Cornell said. "I want to stay right here, go to work, have a
good time and put out fires."
Ray Duckler can be reached at
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