Nearly 17 years ago, a group of terrorists hailing from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates carried out an unthinkable plan, exploited lax airline security policy, and slipped through holes in U.S. intelligence-sharing along the way. Like the Pearl Harbor attacks before them, the damage caused on September 11, 2001 set forth a chain reaction that is felt on the world stage and in the average American’s life to this day.
While in many ways the U.S. has moved on in the years since the attacks, complete recovery is a longer process — arguably a never-ending one, given the severity of the attacks and the changes they wrought. In this sense, one could say the facts and figures that routinely come to press in the autumn months are an attempt to quantify the unquantifiable. Still, examining and understanding the hard data serves several important purposes. It honors those who lost their lives and those who continue to suffer due to the actions of 19 cowardly men. Just as importantly, exploring this data keeps the enormity of the day fresh in all our memories, hopefully to the extent that similar attacks against our country are thwarted in the future.
2,996: Total estimated number of lives lost in the attacks
As with many statistics surrounding September 11, the precise number of lives lost in the attacks is unlikely to ever be known. Encyclopedia Britannica puts the total count at 2,974, including the hundred-plus victims at the Pentagon and the 40 persons killed after passengers forced the terrorists to crash United Airlines Flight 93 into a Pennsylvania field. Still, other estimates claim just over 3,000 people fell victim to the initial attacks and recovery efforts. Taken in total, however, the figure of 2,996 seems to be the most commonly reported number that accounts for victims at all sites. The damage caused on September 11, 2001 set forth a chain reaction that is felt on the world stage and in the average American’s life to this day. Click To Tweet
A loss of life at such a scale is notable on its face, but taken in larger context the number becomes even more surprising. The approximate 3,000 victims, for instance, comprise over 40 percent of all U.S. deaths (7,453) on an average day; in other words, the attacks inflated the average daily death rate in the U.S. by nearly half that day. While it can be hard to comprehend, the immensity of the loss goes a long way towards explaining the impact on the U.S. in the nearly two decades that have followed.
Then there are the lives impacted by the deaths. September 11 victims did not live in a vacuum, and their passing caused incalculable grief for their friends, family, colleagues, and other assorted loved ones. For one example, as many as 10,000 children could have lost a parent as a direct result of the attacks, with countless more losing parents to illnesses linked to Ground Zero exposure. It is a stark reminder that no figure can encompass the depth and complexity of the suffering caused by the attacks.
412: Total number of responders killed during and immediately following the attacks
Roughly 412 first responders, approximately 343 of them firefighters, perished in their attempts to rescue survivors and restore order in the chaos following the attacks. As with the section above, figures on the screen do little to express the true loss suffered in this regard. Besides taking fathers and mothers, daughters and sons from loved ones, the events of the day created an unprecedented staffing shortage for responding agencies, particularly the Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY). In all, it took the organization over two years to return recruitment to pre-September 11 levels.Hundreds of responders sacrificed their lives, charging into the burning hellscape, while thousands of others fought and clawed to escape. Click To Tweet
The FDNY was not the only organization to suffer major losses in the wake of the attacks, however. The approximate 70 Police Department of New York City (NYPD) and Port Authority officers who perished, among others, contributed to the single deadliest day in U.S. law enforcement history. This highlights the substantial losses response organizations experienced — and calls to mind the ultimate sacrifice hundreds of responders made as they charged into a burning hellscape while thousands of others fought and clawed to escape.
24 on, 24 off: Shift structure for FDNY responders following the attacks
The scene unfolding before the FDNY and other response organizations on that fateful day would have caused immense strain regardless of the death toll. Even if every responder managed to avoid disabling injury or death, even if responders borrowed from neighboring departments to top off the roster, the scale of such an event would have been enough to bring any organization to its knees, at least for a short time.
Because of this, the losses the departments did suffer only deepened their struggle, and further cemented the New York rescue community’s legacy as it carried out one of the most daring missions in first response history. In order to cover the newfound roster gaps and ensure maximum coverage for the smoldering wreckage of the World Trade Center, FDNY and other response agencies worked a particularly brutal schedule, doing 24 hours on the clock, followed by 24 hours off. Along with pulling victims from the rubble, the heroes working these intense shifts provided numerous other vital services such as securing the scene and providing early reports of possible damage.
99: Number of days Ground Zero wreckage burned
Rubble from the Twin Towers continued to smolder at Ground Zero for nearly 100 days after the attacks, releasing a stream of poisonous smoke and toxic dust that persisted as thousands of responders crawled the scene. The horrifying visage dominated print, cable, and internet news for months, exposing viewers worldwide to the unbelievable challenge of managing (and eventually clearing) the wreckage; the slow, continued burn also contributed to a dishearteningly high number of post-exposure illnesses and ailments.
30,000-plus: Number of responders with a “certified” September 11-linked illness
On-scene deaths and injuries were in many ways just the start of casualties inflicted in the minutes, days, weeks, and months following the attacks. To this day, tens of thousands of victims (a high percentage of them responders) struggle with “certified” illnesses linked to Ground Zero exposure, including severe respiratory problems, digestive issues, skin conditions, and various cancers.
Unsurprisingly, such a horrifying scene has also inflicted lasting mental health issues upon responding personnel. Over 6,500 responders have “certified” post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) directly related to what they encountered that day. The rubble from the Twin Towers smoldered at Ground Zero for nearly 100 days after the attacks, releasing streams of poisonous smoke and toxic dust. Click To Tweet
A growing number of responders have succumbed to linked illnesses, creating what media outlets call a “second wave” of September 11 deaths. The count sat at 1,140 survivors and responders according to the article linked above, a number that has undoubtedly risen since publication. Government programs like the World Trade Center Health Program (WTCHP), provided as part of the Zadroga Act, exist in large part to provide treatment to (and reduce mortality of) those suffering “secondary” ailments.
18 points: Difference in “accidental disability” retirements for responders before and after September 11
Responders are more likely to retire due to injury and accident than many other professional roles, but the post-9/11 world saw an unnaturally sharp uptick in “accidental disability” retirement even by those standards. Such claims accounted for 48 percent of all retirement activity in the seven years leading up to September 11, but increased to 66 percent in the seven years following.
Thanks in large part to the Zadroga Act and WTCHP, responders who retire under these claims may have greater opportunity to recover worker’s compensation, medical coverage, and other critical support services. Several linked illnesses — including the respiratory, digestive, and cancer-related ailments listed earlier, along with “new onset diseases,” from exposure to asbestos and heavy metal — receive a greater presumption of causation from state and federal programs [PDF Link] than they might for responders with no Ground Zero exposure. Unfortunately, certain other city employees suffering exposure-related ailments may face a stiffer burden of proof when attempting to claim compensation benefits, with New York City’s 9/11 Health site, claiming, “the city has been obligated legally to challenge a high proportion of 9/11-related workers’ compensation claims,” due to an alleged lack of evidence.
25 percent: Amount of charity money reportedly given to September 11 responders and their families
Sadly, many of the claims against charities alleging mismanagement of funds earmarked for survivors and their families seem to be true. The Red Cross, United Way, and numerous other charities of all sizes and statures drew heavy bipartisan criticism for apparent misuse and mishandling of funds ostensibly raised to support survivors, responders, and families who suffered some form of loss because of the attacks. Claims of ‘accidental disability’ – linked to respiratory, digestive, and cancer-related illnesses increased 66 percent in the seven years following 9/11. Click To Tweet
If there is a silver lining to this cloud, it appears public ire has motivated certain organizations to reevaluate their policies and practices related to giving. The Red Cross, for example, initiated an executive-level personnel shakeup, brought in an outside auditing consultant, and announced potential plans to increase cash donations to responder families. Meanwhile, the unprecedented demand and level of work created by the attacks gave leading charities the experience needed to do a better job in subsequent tragedies, such as Hurricane Katrina. While there is little doubt charities showed substantial room for improvement after the attacks, knowing they have learned from their mistakes provides some small measure of comfort.
Conclusion: An unquantifiable tragedy
Years removed from September 11, the sheer enormity of the attacks linger. From major changes in government information-sharing policy to the individual’s awareness of terrorism, the acts of a group of evil men have fundamentally changed life in America, and around the world.
It is important to remember the attacks, and the immense sacrifice many thousands of people made to mitigate further damage. Although our nation has done a fair job supporting responders and their families, there have also been undeniable setbacks. Many of these setbacks are harmful to victims and deeply embarrassing for our nation: charity missteps and political fumbling of the Zadroga Act prove this. With the 20th anniversary of the attacks on fast approach, one hopes our nation can do a better job supporting the people who gave so much — up to and including their lives — to keep an unimaginable tragedy from growing even worse.