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9/11 First Responders in Florida Battle Health Problems and Fear of COVID-19

Richard Yodice 9/11
Richard Yodice
Richard Yodice is one of the thousands of 9/11 first responders living in Florida. In August of last year, he celebrated his final radiation treatment for prostate cancer.

Thousands of first responders and survivors of the 9/11 terror attacks living in Florida are facing health problems today. The coronavirus pandemic puts them at higher risk and many are struggling with social isolation.

When Richard Yodice sees his cousins from Brooklyn next month, it will be the first time he’s seen family since the pandemic started. He normally makes the trip once a year from Boynton Beach to see one of his daughters in New York, but couldn’t take the risk because of COVID-19.

“I was supposed to go for my granddaughter’s communion in May. I usually go to New York for four to six weeks and I had to cancel that. So she received her communion.” Yodice trailed off, the pain in his voice still audible through the Zoom connection.

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He’s one of the thousands of 9/11 first responders and survivors dealing with health complications today. He has GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), OSA (obstructive sleep apnea) and last year was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Yodice is considered in the high-risk population if he were to contract COVID-19, due to his weakened immune system.

Michael Barasch is a managing partner at Barasch, McGarry and has spent the past two decades representing more than 20,000 survivors and first responders from 9/11.

“Prostate cancer, after skin cancer is the most common in the 9/11 community. That air was so toxic and for some reason the men’s prostates are really suffering.”

Barasch estimates 2,000 of his clients live in Florida, with the majority here in South Florida. He knows of at least 20 that have passed away from COVID-19 in the Sunshine State. He suspects the number is much higher because they haven’t been able to access all the death certificates as medical examiners offices have been overwhelmed.

He isn’t surprised that the 9/11 community is vulnerable to the coronavirus, as the most common illnesses were COPD, pulmonary fibrosis and 68 different cancers.

“If you’ve had chemotherapy or radiation, your immune system is shot.”

Yodice worked for 38 years with Consolidated Edison (Con Ed) in New York before retiring to Boynton Beach in 2012. On the night of Sept. 11, he was called into work to assist in the process of restoring power to lower Manhattan.

Over the course of five months, he and a team at Con Ed volunteered to repair the substations near Ground Zero. Their work was considered essential in bringing the financial district back online just weeks after the attack.

“I just wanted to do my part. A lot of the guys in my group volunteered. We did the night shift from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.”

We spoke with Yodice on Sundial as Friday marks 19 years since the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Below is an edited transcription of our conversation. You can also listen to the full interview, which includes our conversation with attorney Michael Barasch.

WLRN: Where were you on Sept. 11 when you were called into work? What was going on?

YODICE: On Sept. 11, I finished my night shift. I was on the 11 to seven, 11 p.m. to seven a.m. I got home maybe a little before eight o'clock in the morning. I tried to get some sleep and was tossing and turning. I turn the TV on in the bedroom. And that's when I actually saw the second plane hit the towers. And I really didn't know what was going on.

I thought maybe it was a mishap, you know a miscalculation by the pilot. And then I put two and two together, you heard the reporters talking and I just couldn't believe it. So my sleep went out the door. I was up until they called us a couple hours later to come in earlier then 11 o'clock at night that night. We went in at seven and made my shift started there.

Yodice on worksite 09-11-20
Richard Yodice (left) on a worksite in New York. He was a mechanic with ConEdison for 38 years before retiring in 2011.

Did they give you protective gear? There was still smoke in the air and all that debris and everything.

We had our own full-face respirator and we had a half-face respirator. It switched every night or sometimes during the same shift. We were down there for 12 or 14-hour shifts and it was either half face or full face. The company was getting mixed signals from whoever was given the orders, the health department or whatever, which mask to wear. But as you know, it's not easy to wear a mask for eight to ten or twelve hours. So you've got to take it off sometime. You got to take it off to eat. That's the way we work.

What were the benefits that they gave you through the World Trade Center health program?

I didn't have any health benefits until I came down with prostate cancer. I was diagnosed last April.

And are they providing anything for that?

Well, I just now got certified. I'm going through steps now. So anything related to my prostate cancer is payable through the World Trade Center Compensation Board.

How are you feeling right now?

Thank God, I'm good. I went through nine weeks of radiation. Everything was good. I finished last August and I go back every three months, I get a Lupron shot every three months and then I get checked by my urologist. Supposedly he says it's going to be for another couple of years for the shot.

Richard, when the pandemic started and then the state went into lockdown, what was going through your mind at the time?

Richard Yodice with family 09-11-2020
Richard Yodice with his three daughters and his grandson at a party in the summer of 2018.

I didn't really know what it was. I've been in the house. I don't go food shopping. Maybe one or two of my close friends will come over from Palm Beach. We don't go out to eat. I canceled my trip to New York. I was supposed to go for my granddaughter's communion in May. I usually go to New York for four to six weeks. And I had to cancel that. So she received her communion.

My immune system, they say, is not the same, and I do take blood pressure medication. I guess I'm going to be kind of on myself and say I'm a few pounds overweight. I'm a big guy. So my cousins are coming from New York next month and luckily they're coming down for six or seven weeks. So I say, well, I won't be seeing you for 14 days. And they understand.