Two decades ago, Steven Brandow joined fellow NYPD officers to dig through the smoldering rubble at Ground Zero, dedicating about a month to the massive recovery effort.
He spent another five years with the department before retiring in 2006, and then worked as a security guard manager.
In late December, Brandow contracted COVID, and he was hospitalized and put on life support for about six weeks. His wife, Gladys, thought he’d pull through. But in February, Steven Brandow died of COVID-19 at age 56.
He was the kind of person who befriended whomever he met, said his wife, who lives on Long Island with their 15-year-old son, also named Steven. Brandow coached Little League and helped with Boy Scouts when their son was younger, and shoveled snow for elderly neighbors during the winter.
“He was a people person,” said Gladys Brandow, a 51-year-old account manager for AT&T. “Whatever he can do to help people, he was just a very down-to-earth and very, very helpful person.”
As the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks arrives just over 1 ½ years into the pandemic, the official count of 9/11 survivors and first responders who have died of COVID-19 is nearing 100. That’s more than double the number of fatalities reported last Sept. 11.
Some 29 survivors and 68 first responders of the more than 112,000 enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Program had died from the virus as of August’s end, according to data compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which oversees the program. That number includes Brandow.
Advocates suspect the true toll is far higher, given the estimated hundreds of thousands of first responders, survivors and other people with 9/11-related illnesses who haven’t joined the program.
Michael Barasch, a lawyer who represents more than 25,000 people who are applying to the separate Victim Compensation Fund, said more than 100 of his clients alone have died of the virus.
“And it wasn’t just COVID — it was COVID and COPD, or COVID and cancer,” he said.
Illnesses Heighten Danger
Meanwhile, the CDC has also counted nearly 7,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in 9/11 responders and survivors, who are at particular risk of the effects of the virus.
Many first responders and survivors suffer from respiratory illnesses such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, as a result of breathing toxic, contaminated air after the attacks.
For those with cancer, treatments such as chemotherapy can compromise immune systems, too. Such conditions can make people more vulnerable to the coronavirus and its worst symptoms.
An estimated 400,000 people were exposed to 9/11 toxic dust in the aftermath of the attacks, and only a quarter have been screened for 9/11-related illnesses. Far more people have died as a result of those illnesses than were killed on that day, according to a report by the Department of Justice released Tuesday.
Last year, days before the city largely shut down to guard against the worsening pandemic, the head of the city’s public hospital system warned that 9/11 first responders and survivors were particularly vulnerable.
“We do very much worry about people from the World Trade Center incident,” city public hospital system CEO Dr. Mitchell Katz said at the time. “This is New York, right, where we have a number of people who may be suffering from lung dysfunction due to their exposure. So it’s basically that people, when your lung function and structure are not normal, your risk is greater.”
Vaccine Efforts Grow
Earlier this year, THE CITY reported how 9/11 first responders and survivors initially had little help available to them to secure a COVID-19 vaccine, despite being eligible for early access to the jab in mid-February.
This week, first responders, survivors and their families had an opportunity to get vaccinated for COVID and be screened for a bevy of conditions — including breast, prostate and skin cancer — during a health fair in Manhattan.
Carmen Cubero, 58, was one of the survivors who got her shot. The Staten Island resident worked in maintenance at the World Trade Center during 9/11.
Cubero was nervous about getting the vaccine — she has multiple sclerosis and worried about side effects.
But with the FDA approval and increasing numbers of those around her getting jabs, she figured it was her turn, she said in Spanish, with her partner, Tony Hernandez, interpreting.
“Everybody in my family got it, so it was my time to get it,” she said.
Barasch encouraged anyone who is eligible to apply for the Victim Compensation Fund.
“If you have a 9/11 illness, you are at risk of getting COVID and dying,” Barasch said. “So you need to protect your family in case, God forbid, you get COVID and you die.”
Families are eligible to be compensated for the death of a loved one from COVID-19 as long as a qualifying 9/11-related illness is listed under one of the three categories in the death certificate: immediate cause of death, underlying causes of death or significant conditions contributing to death.
‘Dreams of Retiring Together’
Gladys Brandow still can’t believe her husband is gone.
But she and her son are taking as much solace as they can in support from family, friends and neighbors in Oceanside — some of the same ones her husband was known to help out. And the town recently named an avenue in honor of him.
The Brandows, who met in Vermont on New Year’s Eve in 2002, would’ve celebrated their 17th wedding anniversary later this month.
“We had dreams of retiring together, maybe relocating and being snowbirds. All that is just gone,” Gladys Brandow said.
“My husband was a very strong person and nobody can believe that this virus took him this young.”