WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Chuck McLiverty, a retired detective with the New York Police Department, lives with skin allergies, a crushed hand, and painful memories nearly 17 years after responding to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
"We may make light of it, joke about it, but you're always just wondering, am I next? Or is the guy or girl sitting next to, are they a walking time bomb that's going to explode? You get tired of going to funerals," said McLiverty.
He explains that his health problems to date are not as serious as other 9/11 first responders. More than 2,000 have died since the attacks from medical issues stemming from toxic exposures at Ground Zero, according to John Feal who keeps track of the deaths.
Sept. 11, 2001
McLiverty was at home drinking coffee and reading the newspaper on the morning of Sept. 11.
"I get a phone call that was just after the plane hit Tower One," said McLiverty. It was his brother who tells him to turn on the TV, where he first sees the burning towers.
McLiverty watches from his home in horror as the second tower is hit.
"I get a call from my detective sergeant... He goes, 'Get the guys on your team, and get into the office'" he explains.
McLiverty and the team head to the Bronx, where they eventually pass through closed roads to arrive at the World Trade Center Plaza.
"All you could see for miles and miles was big plumes of black, billowing smoke," said McLiverty. "All you could see was stuff falling down, out of the air. The air was so thick, it's like you could wave your hand, like being in a snow storm. Wave your hand and move the air, that's how thick it was. And people were running, just covered in junk."
Breathing in toxic grey dust
McLiverty was at Ground Zero almost every day for about six months, working mandatory 12-hour shifts for weeks.
He and thousands of other first responders did not initially have breathing protection from the grey dust at Ground Zero.
"You're breathing in that air, we have no protection," said McLiverty. "For about 24 hours, we had no protection. If you were lucky, somebody went down to one of the hardware stores and got those thin paper masks, dust masks. They lasted maybe two, three minutes and then you had to take them off because you couldn't breathe through it anymore. It was just packed full of dust."
EMS also set up eyewash stations, because the fine powder was burning. First responders starting bringing their own goggles, respirators, and protection because they weren't issued.
"Everybody in the federal agency was in respirators and Tyvec suits. And you would ask them, 'Whats in the air that we should be leery about?' 'Oh nothing.' And then you question them and say, 'If there's nothing in the air, why are you dressed like that and we have nothing?' 'Well that's just protocol.'"
He remembers his skin, clothing, and car covered in the ominous grey powder. He made a habit of washing his clothes separately from his family to avoid exposing them.
"You didn't know what you were breathing. And this went on for days. And then for some people, months," said McLiverty.
Moving to Wilmington
McLiverty retired in 2006 and moved to the Masonboro area about nine years ago. Every year, he goes to the doctor for a series of medical tests to check on the health of his thyroid, pancreas, and liver after 9/11 exposures.
"My hand got crushed. And the cuticle in the bed of my thumb is destroyed," said McLiverty. "I also have what I'm finding out a lot of other people are having is skin rashes. These are unknown. Nobody can tell me specifically what it is."
He went to an allergist for testing and believes it may be a latex allergy which began only after 9/11.
Other first responders are dealing with serious medical problems, including cancer, chronic rhinosinusitis, Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, asthma, sleep apnea, PTSD, and chronic respiratory disorder.
McLiverty enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Program after moving to North Carolina.
"You don't know every time you go to your yearly test what's gonna show up. It's like you're a ticking time bomb. Am I going to get bad news this year?" said McLiverty.
Today, McLiverty is the president of the Wilmington 10-13 Club, which includes retired NYPD members, retired Federal Law Enforcement and any retired law enforcement officers.