Heroes Who Turned Night Into Day at Ground Zero Now Ailing

cross at ground zero
Teamsters Local 817 provided light trucks that helps first responders at Ground Zero after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. (Getty Images)

Teamsters Local 817 President Thomas J. O’Donnell was driving with his father in New York City when he witnessed the first plane crash into the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

“We saw that plane hit the tower and we knew the country was under attack,” recalls  O’Donnell, who leads the Great Neck-based union that works in transportation, casting, and locations for film, television, and Broadway productions.

Although his union’s members work in the entertainment industry, they were among the many unsung heroes who responded to Ground Zero within hours and spent days, weeks, and months after the attacks. And just like the first responders facing severe health challenges, some members of the union have succumbed to cancers caused by toxins present at Ground Zero. As a result, his members are among those receiving support from the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (VCF), funding for which was recently extended until 2090.

The day after the attacks, he received notice of a need for mobile power and lighting with a request for volunteer drivers. For the next two weeks, Local 817 had two 12-hour shifts of about 30 teamster drivers transporting generators on box trucks with lights. They also drove flatbed trucks to help carry large equipment and cables. Water trucks were also provided to spray down dust and keep it out of the air. O’Donnell notes that Local 817 collaborated with Local 52 Motion Picture Studio Mechanics, among other unions.

“Conditions were hazardous and everybody was issued breathing masks,” O’Donnell says. “Over a period of years, some people started developing symptoms or problems that resulted from their time spent there.”

James Leavey, a third-generation Local 817 teamster and retired recording secretary, assisted in the coordination and supervision for Local 817 in the 9/11 relief efforts. 

“We turned night into day with generators and lighting equipment,” Leavey recalls. ”I was never prouder of being a teamster and member of Local 817.”

Leavey, who, with support from the VCF, is being treated for respiratory issues, sleep apnea and chronic post-nasal drip, says he is “one of the lucky ones,” as others have either succumbed to cancer or are currently being treated for more severe health issues. 

“There was actually asbestos and carcinogens down there,” he says. “When the World Trade Center collapsed the dust was so thick you were really walking in a fog at times. We knew that there was going to be health problems, but nobody gave a second thought.”

That’s just what Local 817 does.

“There were miserable nights, pouring rain at times, the temperature had dropped, and it was really a tough situation,” O’Donnell recalls. “To all my members that volunteered and served, as well as every other volunteer who gave their time and put themselves out there, I’m both thankful and proud.” 

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