Wednesday , April 24 2024
"The whole 'fair and balanced' thing bothers me because the news has largely ignored this part of the story..."

Interview with Penny Little, Director of 911: Dust And Deceit At The World Trade Center – Part 2

This is the second part of my interview with Penny Little. The first part was published last week.

What was your role in making this movie?

I filmed, edited, produced, authored the film, made the website. And now I’m promoting the film.

Where has the movie been shown? What is the future for the movie – screenings? DVDs?

The world premier was at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. The film has been shown numerous times by groups interested in the subject, recently featured at a conference in Phoenix. The DVD is available online on several sites, including my own.

I have heard from numerous activist groups that they’re doing salon showings. The preview is online at, and has gone out to various public television stations.  I believe there is a special showing in Los Angeles in April or May. I offer the DVD at a discount or on consignment to activist groups and in bulk online to other sites selling the DVD. I have some pending offers of distribution, which would be great, since it’s a bit difficult to promote, fulfill orders, and get on to my next project.  I love the promotional part, I am invited to do call-ins at showings, and enjoy being at showings to speak and answer questions.

The DVD includes several extras including the trailer, William Rodriguez’ story, and Rachel Hughes’ story, plus Nik Green’s piece from “Music for a New American Century.”

What was the hardest part to make?

There was no hardest part. I found that “living with” the victims’ stories was difficult. I cried a lot. Every time I watch the movie in its entirety – and I’ve watched it hundreds of times – I cry where Rachel Hughes says, “None of this is going to change unless the truth is told.” I really want these people to get the help they need. 

Recently it appears that more attention is being paid to this issue, however this was not the case when I began making the film. I kept hearing the same thing over and over again: These are the heroes, the workers the volunteers, and ordinary folks who got New York City up and running again. I still get mad when I think about this. This is not a happy subject, and spending this much time with this material makes me want to do a film which has more of an upbeat feel. Perhaps this is the most difficult part – knowing there is so much wrong with the world.

I'm sure you have heard about the articles regarding the first "fatality" of the dust who it turned out had fabricated parts of his story. I forget whether or not he was involved in your film. What's your take on these fabrications and the media response to it?

Firstly, Cesar Borja was not involved in my film. He had been mentioned as one of several people whose deaths had been attributed to exposure from the toxins from 9/11 in an interview; however, that clip didn’t actually make it into my film. Detective Zadroga and two other 9/11 responders, emergency medical technicians Timothy Keller, and Felix Hernandez were mentioned in my film. I went back to New York City when I heard that there had been actual documented deaths, because I felt it was imperative to include this in my film.

To my knowledge, Borja, a NYPD police officer for 20 years, never made any public statements which were untrue, and he was too sick in the last several months of his life to speak directly with the media. According to the records, his most intense exposure to contaminants was over a period of 17 days beginning in December, 2001, when he officially worked near Ground Zero, as a traffic and security police officer. According to Police Union President Patrick Lynch, even with just 17 days downtown, Borja still would have qualified under the 40-hour minimum required under the state 9/11 disability law.

"December was still a dangerous month, and the toxins and the smoke didn't just stop at the immediate boundary line of the WTC site," said Joel Kupferman, an environmental lawyer.  The cleanup went on for months after that, and those toxins were still present.

The fact that Borja’s exposure occurred away from the “pile” is even more evidence that the dust was more dangerous than residents, workers, volunteers and first responders were told. That means his status was more akin to that of a resident.

The fires under the World Trade Center Buildings apparently burned for more than three months, and would have been still smoldering when Borja was working near Ground Zero. Anyone who lived or worked in lower Manhattan, not just south of Canal Street, would be at some risk from the toxic contaminants.  People in Chinatown, Brooklyn, and New Jersey were also at risk, for months afterwards, because the contaminated dust particles had lodged inside their homes and work places. And the contamination is still there, in indoor locations which were never properly cleaned — still being kicked up by removal and construction.

One of the people I interviewed – Rachel Hughes – volunteered at Ground Zero for four days, giving out sandwiches to workers. Her litany of health issues includes: difficulty breathing; 30 percent lung capacity; sleeplessness due to body pain; open, bleeding sores; pneumonia, flu-like symptoms, constant fever, and various medical crises requiring numerous hospitalizations. Rachel had difficulty getting into the monitoring program and getting medical help, partly because there was no record of her volunteering. She had been given an official “badge” for volunteering — which one agency, several years later, requested as “proof” of her having been there, since her name did not appear on any lists. She couldn’t find that badge.

Apparently, the part in the Borja story which has caused the uproar is that Borja’s work log shows him as being at Ground Zero in December, but not before, which is what had apparently been reported in the press. Without being able to question Borja directly, since he is dead, much information is second hand. Is it possible Borja did volunteer time at Ground Zero but there simply is no record? I don’t like to speculate, but this was the case with Rachel and I’m sure many others, especially in the first few weeks when everything was chaotic.

It is Borja’s son who took it upon himself to tell his dying father’s story. Did Borja’s son really know exactly where and when his father was at Ground Zero? Borja’s family has also insisted that eyewitnesses told them Cesar Borja did work on the pile at some point.  The Borja family also disputed the article in the Times claiming they were misquoted by over zealous reporters.

Would Borja be alive today had he not worked near Ground Zero? Every "patient" is an individual, with completely different genetics, background, and susceptibilities. 

Dr. Majid Ali, author of September 11, 2005 who appears in my film, mentioned in an outtake that there is a link between weaknesses in the immune system, post traumatic stress disorder, and various symptoms of diseases. He noted that conditions in his patients went downhill after exposure to 9/11, so pre-existing conditions became even worse.

Some of the 9/11 medical cases are difficult to monitor and assess because there is always the possibility there were pre-existing conditions. The firefighters, from what I understand, have frequent health checkups, so it is easier to see if their health problems began on or shortly after 9/11. Did Borja have a relatively clean bill of health before 9/11? As a police officer, was he required to have regular checkups?

The discrepancy in the Borja story may not give the desired boost to those who would rather sweep this entire problem under the carpet. Instead, it is highlighting the problem. Will agencies make it even more difficult for claims of people who are genuinely sick, or whose health went downhill after 9/11? We must remember: “These are the living victims of 9/11,” as Cate Jenkins said in my film.

I believe the police, the firefighters, the volunteers, all the workers and residents — deserve better. The American people deserve better.

The bottom line is that no one should have been exposed to these contaminants. At the very least, people deserved to be told the truth and warned that the hazards existed. If given accurate information, residents, volunteers, workers could then make the decisions for themselves whether to vacate or stay, and how to protect themselves.

I recently heard that President Bush in his pledge of an additional $25 million to the victims of 9/11, after meeting with Borja’s son, now wants to limit aid to the first responders only. The question then becomes: Who are the first responders? These are the people who heroically got NYC back up and running in those first few months after 9/11, including but not limited to: the firefighters, police, construction workers, volunteers, plumbers, electricians, workers on Wall Street, bus drivers, traffic cops, school teachers, etc.  

And, what about the residents? Don’t they deserve health care, if through no fault of their own, based on government reassurances and deliberate lies, they were poisoned?

My only criticism of the movie is something which may have been beyond your control – that it appears one-sided. Were attempts made to talk to Christine Todd Whitman, for example?

I tried to get an interview with Whitman, and unfortunately did not. This is not one-sided. Facts are not partisan. Would members of the Bush administration talk to me?  Would James Connaughton? These are the people who are guilty of misrepresenting the facts to the public.  

Even if they would speak to me, would they say anything other than their official line which already exists everywhere in the mainstream media? The whole “fair and balanced” thing bothers me because the news has largely ignored this part of the story, and theirs is the only story we’ve really heard. 

I’ve seen a couple pieces about the 9/11 dust on television, and they were biased, and from what I recall did not bring up the fact that there are thousands involved in lawsuits. When there are lawsuits, those who are defendants often will not talk to the press, let alone independent filmmakers like myself.

Usually there is at least a graphic announcing that the other side refused comment. Or was there a conscience choice not to do that? I don’t mean to be negative – I think it’s an excellent movie – but I’m just telling you what some reviewers are going to say.

I have spoken on the radio on numerous occasions about Mt Sinai Hospital and others refusing to speak with me. At the time, I did not feel it was necessary, neither in the context nor rhythm of this film. It may even seem like “sour grapes” to put in a graphic announcing that the other side refused to speak to me. Why would I need to be confrontational about that?

The people who delivered the facts delivered them effectively. Why would I need someone denying the facts? Would that make the “defendants” appear even more callous? I suppose, if they would have spoken to me, that would have been even more effective in showing the criminal conduct of personnel within certain official government agencies. There are good people in all of these agencies. 

All that said, if they still want to talk to me, I’d think about doing a director’s cut. It is interesting to me they wouldn’t want their side of the story and opinions on this issue.

What do you think about this Village Voice piece and its criticism of The New York Times coverage of this issue?

The Times was obviously the mouthpiece for the EPA about the safety of the air right after 9/11. They didn't thoroughly investigate the material which was being fed to them by the doctored, toned down releases from the EPA. Or they blatantly chose to ignore the real data.

From what I’ve heard, representatives from the Times were present at some of the early community meetings in which Marjorie Clarke and others warned about the potential hazards in the environment, yet the Times did not seem interested in reporting on the hazards of the contamination.

And now it appears that someone at the Times actively sought information to discredit a high profile case of illness from the dust. I find that interesting in and of itself. 

We have a government which has released VNRs – video news releases – provided to television news stations for the purpose of informing, shaping public opinion. We have a government which we know has meddled in the official press releases of the EPA. We have Giuliani’s office calling an editor at the Daily News to tell them to lay off the story of the contamination. (See Juan Gonzales book Fallout). We have Condoleezza Rice’s office and James Connaughton of the President’s Counsel on Environmental Quality overseeing and giving final approval to the infamous Environmental Protection Agency press releases days after 9/11 claiming the air near Ground Zero was  "safe to breathe." Can we be sure at what level the information about Borja went awry?  We live in a world of spin and half-truths, where information is manipulated constantly to elicit a desired response.

What also appears to be happening is more reliance on centralized sources, and taking the official government story as fact. Andrew Revkin at the Times apparently had no problem in aligning with the government’s story in regards to the contamination from 9/11. Perhaps some editors at the Times felt it was “irresponsible” to report on the hazards –given the fact that it seemed more important to reopen Wall Street and get back to “business as usual”, than to worry about public health and safety. In so doing, the Times did not alert the public to the extent of the contamination, when it mattered most.

If information is passed on from multiple sources and it appears to have validity, one would generally make the assumption that it might be true. However, this is not always the case.  

“A lie told often enough becomes truth.” This certainly seemed to be the case with the EPA’s proclamations after 9/11. If the people hear a piece of information, either valid or erroneous, repeatedly, they tend to believe it. So it is of utmost importance to check and re-check facts, and be able to draw a distinction between real data and spin. The jury is still out on the Borja story, and we may never know, since he is dead, and the records may not exist. 


About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been working in mental health for the last ten years. He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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