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Department store workers who fought to reopen after 9/11 now suffering from ground zero illnesses

American flag ties hang from a shelf at the reopened Century 21 department store, which stands across the street from the site of the World Trade Center towers, Feb. 28, 2002 in New York City. (Mario Tama/Getty Images/TNS)

Lori Ellis had a front row seat to the horrors of 9/11.

As senior manager for operations and merchandising at the Century 21 on Cortlandt Street in lower Manhattan — mere feet from the twin towers — she saw desperate people jumping from windows after the planes hit. She can’t forget stepping over dead bodies, trying to keep her panicked employees away from the store windows, evacuating everyone and escaping through the smoke and a layer of white dust that covered everything like new fallen snow.

She also remembers what happened five months later, when she and her co-workers proudly reopened the discount department store, becoming the first major retailer near ground zero to do so.

Two women speak at the reopened Century 21 department store, which stands across the street from the site of the World Trade Center towers, Feb. 28, 2002, in New York City. (Mario Tama/Getty Images/TNS)

“It was nothing shy of a miracle,” Ellis, 54, said. “We came in early and the customers were already lined up around the block. A few of our employees were scared, but I promised to greet them at the door and walk them in.

“People were crying and excited, but they were also scared,” she recalled. “There were still sharpshooters on the rooftops and we didn’t really know if we were safe or not, but we came in anyway.”

Century 21′s grand reopening, replete with a ribbon-cutting by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, became a shining symbol of the Big Apple’s resilience following the terrorist attacks.

Two decades later, the former employees at the now shuttered store represent something completely different: They’re among those sick and dying from breathing in the toxic air that hung over ground zero for months.

When Ellis returned to the lower Manhattan store on Sept. 15 to ready it for reopening, the putrid scent of ground zero was inescapable.

“It smelled like burning plastic the whole time,” she said. “But when you’re there, you get used to it. It’s like when you work at a fish market and you get used to the smell of fish.”

Out of the roughly 600 people who worked in the store when it reopened, at least 15 employees or vendors are now stricken with a 9/11 illness or cancer and have registered with the World Trade Center Health Program or the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, according to lawyer Michael Barasch. Another two have died from 9/11-related cancers.

An additional 12 Century 21 shoppers and 19 first responders who conducted recovery operations inside the store have also applied for compensation, Barasch said.

Employees, like Ellis, who suffered a rare skin cancer from her time working near the pile, are currently going through the registration process.

It’s not clear how many former Century 21 employees have been sickened or have died from a 9/11 illness.

The retail giant filed for bankruptcy and shuttered its 13 stores during the pandemic, although it was announced last year that the company would be opening brick-and-mortar stores again in the coming months.

Ellis and other employees have been reaching out to their former co-workers on LinkedIn and social media, encouraging them to get tested for 9/11 illnesses, but it’s almost impossible to get to everybody.

“People have died, but we don’t know if they died from a 9/11 illness or not,” Ellis said.

Marc Benitez, president of Century 21 stores, declined to comment.

Barasch said Century 21′s former employees “represent a perfect storm among the forgotten victims of 9/11.”

“The store was a microcosm of the downtown neighborhood at the time,” Barasch said. “Yet so few have applied with the World Trade Center Health Program — less than 10%.”

Someone should create a list of employees who worked at the store and encourage them to get evaluated, he said.

“There are payroll records out there somewhere,” Barasch explained. “The store is not responsible for what happened, the federal EPA told them that the air was safe, but why aren’t these big companies reaching out to their former employees encouraging them to sign up?”

While more than 80% of first responders who rushed to ground zero have signed up for compensation, less than 8% of the 300,000 office workers, retail workers, students, teachers and downtown residents who breathed in the same air have enrolled, he said.

“Either they don’t want to do it, they think they might be taking money away from the heroes or they don’t think it applies to them, but it does,” Barasch said.


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