The Injustice of Sensory Loss

An interview with 9/11 responder Larry Holloway.

Posted Mar 14, 2018

There was so much loss on September 11, 2001, and it continues as first responders continue to perish through related illnesses contracted at or near Ground Zero.

Heroic 9/11 volunteer Larry Holloway of New Jersey recently talked with me about his own illnesses, which he is inexplicably still struggling to have included in those which are compensated by New York state. Not least of his ailments is the loss of his sense of smell and taste.

Courtesy Larry Holloway.
Source: Courtesy Larry Holloway.

How are your senses affected by your heroism on 9/11? 

LH: In the years following my volunteering at the World Trade Center on 9/11 I have lost my senses of smell and taste. Replacing them is the smell and taste of the WTC air which is imprinted on my senses. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. It almost immediately caused you to choke and cough. There were no masks available, but there were people who needed help so I just kept on searching. It wasn't too long before the smell of death hung heavy in the air. My eyes burned for days after being there. Following my searching the lower levels and assisting with the rescue of the last survivor, I had to seek out the triage center to have my eyes flushed as they were so red and burning I could barely see.  I have a constant ringing in my ears and have read reports attributing it to the many toxins we were exposed to at the WTC site.

I can remember after myself and two others, one named Danny Boy, a Newark fireman, climbed down into the lower concourse levels to silence the shrieking back-up fire and elevator alarms. We originally thought the noise was the emergency beacons of the lost or trapped firemen. After climbing up on debris we knocked the speakers out of the alarms. A haunting silence fell once the last one was disabled. Then all we heard was the water rushing down from above. We assumed it was from the firemen trying to extinguish the burning pile of the remains of the towers. We continued on our search downward through the lower levels. We reached a tunnel beneath the parking garage. It was partially flooded and reeked of sewage, jet or diesel fuel and who knows what else was in there. We tried wading through, but almost immediately our skin was burning as the chemicals leached into our skin. We retreated.

What were more of the sensory experiences on The Pile? I remember that awful chalky dust for weeks and weeks in the region. I imagine it was so much worse for you there and there might have been other experiences as well.

LH: My first instinct was "this is bad" as I was walking Downtown from the Javits Center where the trucker I had hitched a ride with had dropped me. As I got closer I dodged several small tornados of dust and debris being sucked downtown by the air consumed by the WTC fires. When I finally rounded the corner by West Broad it was just a war zone: debris all over, burning cars, Building 7 lying like a broken giant on its side. It was bad. When I finally went past Trinity Church and into the WTC site proper it looked like the Roman Coliseum, backlit by fire you could see the framework of the remains of the towers. Once I entered the pile of twisted steel and debris it was pretty clear that finding anyone alive would be a miracle. There were 110 stories of desks, computers, phones, office cubicles etc. and all that was left was twisted burning steel and papers. Papers everywhere. I was in the middle of the pile and reached down and picked up an old canceled check, it said 1 World Trade Center on it. I put it in my pocket as a remembrance. Chunks of thick plate glass looked like flint spears with chipped edges and were very sharp. This is what we dug through by hand while searching and hoping for any signs of life.

Thick clouds of acrid smoke choked my lungs. It hung like a cloud of fog just above the pile. I remember seeing a tiny little girl dragging a cooler of water through the debris, offering it up to anyone who she could reach. I remember the judge in NY WC Court asking me why I didn't have a FEMA badge or if I had a receipt from getting a blanket at the Trinity Church so I could sleep, I just laughed and told her on Wednesday 9/12 I had to go to use the toilet in the Millennium Hilton due to a lack of water...and sleep? Did you ever try to sleep in an active construction zone, with sirens going off every five minutes?

They had a laser up on one of the buildings they thought might also collapse, and we were told if the siren went off, to clear the debris field. Since it took quite a while to scale over and around holes and twisted metal, if you misplaced a step in the dark you could find yourself 40 feet down into an abyss with no chance of getting help or out. When I went down in the hole to help with digging out two survivors, there were hot steel beams down there which were literally glowing. It was the gateway to hell. I don't know how they survived. You crawled on your stomach into a hole barely as big as your head, sometimes holding your flashlight in your teeth, so you could pull yourself along with your hands, all the while ever aware that you were lying on the remains of others' loved ones. Whenever I or others located someone's remains or you found a personal effect, each and every one was treated as if it were our loved ones, with a level of reverence and respect bar none. No one who perished there perished alone without love. They were, for the moment, our family members. It was very painful. 

Please tell me about your life before 9/11. What were your greatest joys? What were your life goals

LH: Prior to the WTC attacks I was a successful business owner and race car driver. I had spent my last few months in high school sleeping in my car and showering at a campground, but I still managed to graduate. The next year I called two chairs in the office of a gas station where I worked home and was glad to have it. I honed my trade, moved on to buy my first house, paid it off in five years, then bought my second. I worked for a Toyota dealer and enjoyed it, but felt I could do just as well on my own. So I started a British car restoration business and specialized in the original Austin Minis. This afforded me to travel around Europe and mainly the UK where I made many friends who also loved the little cars. I imported many of them back to the States. I also had rallied and raced Minis for many years winning dozens of races. I was good at it and I knew my car and as a driver-mechanic, I believe it was an advantage which made me more understanding of what my car was capable of. When BMW launched the new MINI I worked for them keeping the fleet of originals in the press pool running for the different launch premiers. I was also an avid outdoorsman and enjoyed fishing; mostly largemouth bass. Then a good friend of mine turned me on to the serenity of fly fishing, which I also came to know and love. I had always dreamed of having a house on a lake and being able to fish whenever I wanted. I bought a little place on a lake in Florida after I fell ill but I have just kept it rented or empty. I have never been able to go enjoy it. I always imagined maybe someday I would find my perfect partner in crime and at 49 I met her through a friend. She worked in the hospital where I go for my 9/11 care. We got married the next year and planned our life together. Unfortunately, due to my now severe health issues and the ongoing fight for my care, we have never been able to really have the kind of life we had planned. 

What are some of the things you miss most about life now that you are so sick? 

LH: Before I risked my life for my country I was able to come and go as I pleased. I miss the trips to Europe, the Virgin Islands, and all over the country to car shows and races. I worked hard to get to where I was at and made great money and enjoyed a carefree life. Gone are the days of my freedom to wander. I no longer race, which in itself was my escape to freedom. If you've never run flat out on a track I highly recommend it. It's just you and your machine, mind totally focused, the world unfolding in front of you one turn at a time. It was my freedom, my passion, my peace and now it's gone.

The most painful thing has been being held hostage on my property, forced to spend the last the last several years of my life in courts fighting for my right to survive, both physically and financially. I've had to fight with New York Workman's Compensation over the 9/11 Volunteer Fund benefits paid for by the taxpayers for our care and denied by New York just because they could, and fighting my town of Jackson NJ where I lived for 25 years, because they approved an illegal subdivision which they had no authority to approve allowing a developer to delete the road to my property which landlocked it.

It made me unable to get title insurance to sell it and forced me to spend what little savings I had left on lawyers and courts trying to correct their mistake. Even more painful a loss than that, is the years I've been married and unable to physically or financially take my wife to all the wonderful places I had experienced and had always dreamed about one day showing to my life partner. Now 60 years old, broke and sick, I can't imagine I will ever be able to give her the life we planned with each other. It's heartbreaking.

If you had the choice to help again, would you?

LH: I've given this last question much thought. If I had to do it again, knowing that I would be tortured for risking my life for my country by those entrusted with my care, it would have to be no, but in saying that if I was thrust into a situation where I had to risk my life for another human being, especially my wife, again with no hesitation: yes.

The true heroes in this world are those who have sacrificed of themselves for the service of others. Whether they put their lives on the line for other people or for their country. Some of these heroes might be your neighbor and you'd never know it. They never ask for anything, they never expect to be treated differently, they just want to be able to live their lives with a little respect and dignity.

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