A 52-year-old Pennsylvania man who assisted in the rescue and clean-up efforts at ground zero has died of pleural mesothelioma. His doctors at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UMPC) are linking his death to the toxic cloud of debris and dust that descended on lower Manhattan after the attacks on the World Trade Center.
Nick Ursta, an EMT, firefighter, and construction worker, was an early victim of pleural mesothelioma, an aggressive form of lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.
Ursta died on October 29th. It was his 52nd birthday.
A Small Rescue Team Confronts a Big Disaster
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Ursta, his wife Margaret, and nine members of the White Oak Pennsylvania Rescue Team loaded up an ambulance, rescue truck, and wheelchair van, and headed to New York City.
When they arrived, the group was placed on lower Manhattan’s frontline: the YMCA building just a block from ground zero. For three days, they patrolled the area and comforted family members searching for lost loved ones.
In an interview with a local newspaper, Ursta’s wife described the chaotic scene.
“Oh my goodness, dust was everywhere,” Margaret told the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette. “…the smell was terrible – burning flesh and the smell of jet fuel. It was so horrible.”
Ground Zero: Exposure to Dangerous Dust
The fires that led to the eventual collapse of the towers released a massive cloud of dust and toxic compounds. Jet fuel burned for days, spreading more than 100,000 tons of debris and covering lower Manhattan in soot, lead, mercury, metals, asbestos, and other carcinogens.
The WTC Registry estimates more than 410,000 people, including rescue workers, firefighters, and survivors, or people who lived, worked and attended school in the area were exposed to these toxins that day and for months afterward.
An Early Mesothelioma Death Attributed to 9/11
Nick Ursta’s diagnosis and death mark one of the earliest cases of mesothelioma in the 911 cohort.
There are 15 certified cancers listed in the World Trade Center (WTC) Health Program, which is run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Among the responders and survivors, more than 14,000 have been diagnosed with cancer. Of that group, more than 700 people have lung cancer.
However, given the long latency period of some diseases, including mesothelioma, the medical community expects that number to increase.
“I’m not surprised at all,” said Dr. Raja Flores, Chief Thoracic Surgeon at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “We’re expecting to see more cases of mesothelioma in the future. You won’t see them immediately, though.”
Dr. Flores, who regularly examines patients enrolled in the WTC Health Program, says he’s often able to predict the course of certain lung cancers.
‘It’s a little scary how predictable it is,” Flores says. “All these patients are being screened with cat scans, and if it’s not cancer, it’s precancerous. There are certain changes we can see.”
He describes the development of mesothelioma as a bell curve.
“There’s one now, one or two next year, maybe a few every year,” Flores told Mesothelioma Hub. “But after 25 or 30 years, you’ll see a spike, that’s for sure.”
Funeral services for Nick Ursta took place on November 1, in White Oak and McKeesport, Pennsylvania. A GoFundMe page created to cover Ursta’s funeral costs has raised more than $11,000.