‘9/11’s Unsettled Dust’ Director Lisa Katzman on Parallels Between COVID Pandemic and Sept. 11

Unsettled Dust frame
Courtesy of Lisa Katzman

About a month after Sept. 11, 2001, documentarian and journalist Lisa Katzman went back to her apartment in Lower Manhattan. Although her home had been cleaned, the windows were open and there was still dust in the air as hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteers still labored tirelessly at Ground Zero and the surrounding streets as part of the recovery and cleanup mission after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. She spent one night there and woke up in the morning feeling “like I had an anvil on my chest,” she recalls.

That was enough for Katzman to pack back up and return to staying with friends further away. It’s also what changed the way she thought about the events of that fateful day.

“9/11 is remembered as a terrorist attack, but it is also the largest man-made environmental disaster that ever impacted an American city, let alone a city as big as New York,” she tells Variety.

When American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 hit the World Trade Center, each Boeing 767 aircraft started a fire that included toxins from the jet fuel of their engines being released into the air. When the towers collapsed less than two hours later, the 110 stories came down in a gray, asbestos-laced cloud that covered a multi-block radius before the wind scattered particles further out. In the weeks that followed, the machines that dug through the rubble further disturbed the toxic dust.

Anyone working at Ground Zero was most in harm’s way by sheer proximity and lack of proper protective resources, but the spiderweb of danger spread out across the city as the government said the air was safe to breathe, reopening select lower Manhattan businesses just days after Sept. 11 and sending children back to schools in the area less than a month later. It didn’t take long for survivors, first responders and many others to start getting sick.

The extent of the illnesses, as well as the government’s missteps that some say was deception and the lengths to which civilians had to go to fight for health care post-9/11, is the subject of Katzman’s latest project, a 90-minute hour documentary titled “9/11’s Unsettled Dust,” which airs on select PBS stations just in time for the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and while the world is in the middle of another disaster, the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The legacy of 9/11 is all of the thousands upon thousands who are sick and the thousands who have died from their illnesses,” she says. “What needed to be done to keep the city safe [was] getting more masks and the right respirator type. There weren’t enough of them initially, but then when they could have gotten more, they didn’t. And part of the reason is because of the optics.”

In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, there was a “surge of patriotism,” she acknowledges, that drew many to come out to Ground Zero from other boroughs and other states. Those people were moved and motivated “to act on behalf of the common good — and the common good dictated, you go and you search in the rubble for the dead first and then you begin to clear. They’re in a different state, and they’re not thinking about their own survival. They’re actually thinking about how they can be of service.” But, she adds, “that ideology was really being turned into a kind of propaganda to incite people. On the one hand, you had incredibly compassionate self sacrificing response, and then you have this completely cynical actions on the part of [then Environmental Protection Agency chief] Christine Todd Whitman, President Bush, Mayor Giuliani.”

Although what was in the air in New York City in the fall of 2001 is not nearly the same as coronavirus now, there are some eerie similarities to how messaging around health and safety was handled, Katzman notes. In 2001, she recalls, “the interests of Wall Street trumped everything else. Wall Street opened on Sept. 17, six days later. And they had big trucks down there with the vacuums and then they found out they didn’t even have the right filters on them to be sucking up the dust on the street. This was insane.” Almost two decades later, she says, “Trump had many peculiar reasons of his own, related to his vanity and so forth, for not wearing the mask, but a big part of that had to do with the same thinking: He thought it would depress the economy.”

In 2001, wearing a mask would have been an action taken to protect one’s self, whereas now, it also protects others. But looking through archival footage, some of which is in Katzman’s documentary, there are not many masks worn, let alone high-grade medical ones or parts of hazmat suits. For some, this may have been due to lack of resources, but for others, it was trust in a system that was failing them.

“The monitoring station monitors that were set up were clogged. So, when I say cynical, this is a perfect example because what did the EPA post on their website? That they couldn’t get a reading — but of course not because the monitors were clogged. That’s how bad it was,” Katzman says. “It requires governmental oversight.”

The same was true, of course, when the pandemic began. “What was Trump doing? He had his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, running FEMA, replacing qualified people with scientific training who know how to order the right supplies, and it turned into a grift,” she says.

The long-term health effects of exposure to toxins after 9/11 are still coming to light, two decades later. The same will likely be true of COVID-19.

Katzman shares that she first started working on the documentary in the summer of 2010, when the world was reeling from a more recent environmental disaster: the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Her original idea for a documentary was to combine both elements and use “the dereliction of duty on the part of the EPA” as the connection between the two. But because of how things were advancing with 9/11 — specifically first responder and 9/11 survivor John Feal putting together a group to lobby Congress on behalf of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010 and then having to continue to fight just a few years later to get cancers covered under the bill — 9/11 became the focus. She ended up filming for five and a half years, with one of her final days following the late Ray Pfeifer when he got the key to New York City in early January 2016.

Katzman spent months traveling to Washington, D.C. to film what was happening with the bill, which is named for former NYPD officer Zadroga, the first officer whose death (in 2004 of respiratory disease) was attributed to his exposure to the toxins at Ground Zero. She crossed paths with the filmmakers of “No Responders Left Behind,” which also follows Feal and activist-comedian Jon Stewart in their fight for first responders’ health rights, at a memorial service in 2016, but her story purposely expands beyond the first responders to include volunteers and community members.

“These are people that received no special training for trauma, nor proper health materials,” she says.

Among these everyday people featured in “9/11’s Unsettled Dust” is Lila Nordstrom, a Stuyvesant High School senior at the time who went on to found StuyHealth and write “Some Kids Left Behind: A Survivor’s Fight for Health Care in the Wake of 9/11” about her experience on the day and in the years after, advocating for health. Additionally, Katzman’s documentary includes various ​women who cleaned up facilities used as triage and collection centers, some of whom were undocumented and none of whom received hazmat suits.

“I think the impact on the children is so tragic and so underreported, really,” says Katzman. “But I remember seeing this group of undocumented workers, mostly Hispanic, and the dread in their eyes was so profound. They were doing the cleanup, they were picking up body parts, they were doing the worst work imaginable. And we don’t know what happened to a lot of those people. They went back to Central America and Mexico and were never heard from again.”

“People can’t rely on the government to do the right thing. We saw it in Flint, Mich.; we saw it with the BP oil disaster; we saw it with 9/11, and we saw it under Trump with the pandemic.”