NEW YORK -- City and federal officials came under withering criticism yesterday from lawmakers who asserted that ground zero workers were not protected as they clambered over a smoking pile of toxic debris -- or properly cared for in the years since.
Christie Todd Whitman, the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, was the most frequent target during a daylong House hearing about the health woes afflicting thousands of ground zero workers -- a session that began with emotional testimony from a man whose police detective son died of lung disease.
The hearing delved into the government's public assurances about the air around the World Trade Center site. Whitman declared that in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the air in lower Manhattan was safe for workers and residents. She also tells ``60 Minutes" in a segment to be aired tomorrow that the responsibility for offering protective breathing gear to workers on the debris pile lay with the city. Her earlier statements have come back to haunt her; thousands of ground zero workers are still ill. She is also being sued over the public assurances.
Representative Christopher H. Shays, Republican of Connecticut, who chaired the hearing, said Whitman's statements in September 2001 ``defied logic, and everybody knows that."
Whitman defended herself yesterday, insisting that it was up to local authorities to make sure that rescue workers wore protective breathing gear.
``We agreed then, and I reiterate now, that the air on the site was not clean -- the consequence of millions of tons of burned debris from the most horrific attack in our nation's history. We were emphatic that workers needed to wear respirators, a message I repeated frequently. But I did not have the jurisdiction to force workers to wear them -- that was up to their superiors," she said in a statement.
City Health Commissioner Thomas R. Frieden said the federal government was responsible for work safety at the site, and said of Whitman's post-Sept. 11 assurances, ``I don't think that was an appropriate way to word the message."
Others appearing at the hearing before the House subcommittee on national security, emerging threats, and international relations, including Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, accused the EPA of lying and endangering public health.
At a separate event yesterday, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg defended the city's handling of the disaster, saying it did distribute masks.
``Nobody knew whether there would be health issues down the road, and they made the decisions that they thought were right at the time," said Bloomberg.
Joe Lhota, former deputy mayor for operations under Rudolph W. Giuliani, who was mayor during the attacks, said in a statement Thursday, ``The EPA publicly reported that the general air quality was safe, and the city repeatedly instructed workers on the pile to use their respirators."
The hearing began with testimony from Joseph Zadroga, whose son James died in January of respiratory disease attributed to ground zero exposure.
Zadroga briefly lost his composure as he described the day he found his NYPD detective son dead on his bedroom floor. The father blasted the city for doing nothing while his son was sick.