WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - It's been nearly 17 years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., but suffering continues for thousands of people who responded in the aftermath.
Medical problems, including respiratory issues, mental health, cancer, and injuries are responsible for the growing list of responders, survivors, and volunteers who have died since 9/11.
Heidi Higgins is a retired New York Police Department detective who now lives in Wilmington. She responded to Ground Zero on 9/11 and worked in the area for three months following the attacks.
"Fire, inferno, chaos…all hell was breaking loose," said Higgins. "Radios were going crazy. All you could hear were the poor cops that were trying to evacuate, trying to rescue, and it was just chaos."
Her assignment started as a rescue mission, but turned into weeks of search and recover.
"When you got down there, there was so much dust in the air and it was thigh high," said Higgins. "But it was such a fine powder, a grey-white soot, that it was surreal."
Higgins said she and other first responders were not provided with and generally did not have proper protection from the elements.
"In terms of protection, the first couple of weeks, I didn't have anything," said Higgins. "I had nothing. Eventually, they handed out these little masks, like if you were going to paint your house. They'd give them to you and you'd put them on, but that didn't work."
Christine Whitman, the former chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, told the public the air over Ground Zero was safe to breathe at the time.
She apologized in 2016, and admitted she was wrong.
"We were lied to," said Higgins. "We listened to our government. We trusted them. We put our lives in their hands. They let us down."
Higgins said the first sign of her health problems was a cough, which turned into more serious breathing problems.
"Our health starting to go south pretty quickly. … I ended up having a lot of respiratory issues," said Higgins, who said she has 56 percent of her lung capacity. "I lost my ability to smell and taste anything except for gasoline. The only thing I can smell is something very powerful, and it has to be put under my nose."
Higgins said she began to feel exhausted all the time and felt like she couldn't get enough oxygen in her lungs.
"This was something that has creeped up on us, all of us, every single one of us as a first responder to the 9/11 tragedy, that's killings us slowly. I know I'm going to have a shorter lifespan. It's my reality," said Higgins. "I'll be on oxygen soon. I'm sure I will."
Today, Higgins has a list of health problems — including COPD, chronic rhinosinusitis, sleep apnea, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) — she says arose from breathing in the toxic dust at Ground Zero.
Higgins must take many medications and treatments every day in order to maintain her health.
"I was in incredible shape before 9/11. I was a vegan. I was working out all the time," said Higgins. "I had gone to college on a full basketball scholarship. I was in incredible shape.
"Within two years, that person faded away."
In 2011, the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010 was signed into law. This established the World Trade Center (WTC) Health Program, which provides medical care for emergency responders, recovery and cleanup workers, and volunteers who helped after 9/11.
The WTC Health Program also cares for certain people who were present in the 9/11 dust cloud.
The exact number of first responders who have died from 9/11-related exposures is unknown, but there are estimates available from different sources.
According to data from the World Trade Center Health Program, 937 responders enrolled in that program have died after being diagnosed with breathing, mental health, cancer, and/or traumatic injuries. This number is likely a low estimate because not all 9/11 first responders are enrolled in the WTC Health Program.
About 70 types of cancers have been linked to Ground Zero exposures.
"We're dying off in record proportions," Higgins said. "We're sick, we're struggling, and people should still know that. Don't forget about us."
Higgins is enrolled with the WTC Health Program, but said the it does not provide enough for 9/11 responders.
"The national program is not that effective to be honest with you," said Higgins. "I've been (in Wilmington) since December, and I've been begging them for a pulmonologist. Begging them."
Higgins said she had to call and make her own appointment in June after the WTC Health Program did not help her.
"There are thousands of us out there like us," she said. "I'm not the only one."
Higgins says she moved to Wilmington for the cleaner air and to be with other first responders who live here.
"The New York doctors, the 9/11 doctors, said 'You need to get out of here. You need to get out of this area. You need to go where there's an ocean where you can breathe in the sea air with the salt.' It's going to be a much better climate for me," said Higgins.
Since the attacks, Higgins estimates she has lost about 20 personal friends.
"I have tears of joy that I'm still here, but I have tears for my brothers and sisters who are gone, who are actively dying, and who are actively suffering," she said.
There are about 100 members in the Wilmington 10-13 Club, which includes retired NYPD members, retired Federal Law Enforcement and any retired law enforcement officer, according to Mary Friderichs, the club president.
They meet every third Monday of each month.
If you are a 9/11 responder or have a loved one who is, reach out to WECT's Ben Smart to share your story.