Marcy Borders: The tragic story of ‘Dust Lady’ and other 9/11 survivors who developed fatal health problems

Covered head to toe in toxic dust, ash and smoke, Marcy Borders’s life was transformed by the collapse of the World Trade Center’s North Tower, writes Andrew Naughtie

Saturday 11 September 2021 17:38 BST
9/11 Survivor Recounts Escape From World Trade Centre
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Even among the million photographs taken on one of the most devastating days of the 21st century, it’s a picture possessed of unusual power. Just after the collapse of the World Trade Center’s South Tower, a woman staggers from the street into an office building, caked in dust. Her face is caught somewhere between blank shock and acute pain. From head to toe, she’s been powdered white by pulverised concrete and cement.

This is Marcy Borders, who had just started a new job at Bank of America. Against her manager’s advice, she ran out onto the street in lower Manhattan just before the North Tower collapsed, and was soon coated from head to toe in its remains.

As captured by photographer Stan Honda, who was roaming the streets that day, she became known as the “Dust Lady”. That name stuck in public memory just as much as the photo itself, but it did little justice to the harrowing image or the life of the woman it depicted – and much less to the thousands of people who, like Ms Borders, were exposed to the 9/11 wreckage in ways that ruined their health for years to come.

For Honda himself, the picture’s legacy remains a strange one. “Over the years it has been odd for me to think of me having a photo with a legacy,” he says. “I studied many photographers who have very well-known images and never thought I could have an image like that. I think since the photo of Marcy Borders is of a single person trying to cope with the chaos of that day, people can relate to that.”

The story of Ms Borders’s life after the attacks, too, is relatable – not in spite of its drama, but because of it.

Speaking to the New York Post in 2011, not long after Osama Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan by US Navy SEALs, Ms Borders described how the terror of the day gave way to 10 years of depression and addiction. “It was like my soul was knocked down with those towers,” she said.

“My life spiralled out of control. I didn’t do a day’s work in nearly 10 years, and by 2011 I was a complete mess. Every time I saw an aircraft, I panicked. If I saw a man on a building, I was convinced he was going to shoot me.”

It was only after losing custody of her two children that she checked herself into rehab for a crack addiction borne of despair. “I started smoking crack cocaine, because I didn’t want to live,” she told the Post.

Ms Borders died of cancer that she believed may have been caused by the dust she was covered in on 9/11
Ms Borders died of cancer that she believed may have been caused by the dust she was covered in on 9/11

Borders seemed to make a full recovery – but four years later, she died of stomach cancer, a disease she herself thought might have come from the carcinogenic dust and smoke she was doused with in Honda’s photo.

“I’m saying to myself, ‘did this thing ignite cancer cells in me?’” she told the Jersey Journal. “I definitely believe it because I haven’t had any illnesses. I don’t have high blood pressure … high cholesterol, diabetes. How do you go from being healthy to waking up the next day with cancer?”

Borders was hardly alone in wondering whether she was a casualty of that day in ways physiological as well as psychological. In fact, the death toll of the disaster in New York is hundreds, even thousands, higher than the 3,000-odd quoted for the day itself – and it continues to rise.

The health implications of the World Trade Center collapse became a concern immediately after the towers fell. And top of the agenda were the first responders who attended the scene during and after the attack, breathing in air thick with dust and particulate matter from the collapsed and burnt buildings in lower Manhattan. Many of them were traumatised by what they endured. So began a 20-year saga of medical investigations, legislative elbow grease, and public uproar that continues to this day.

The dire health risks caused by Ground Zero’s smoking wreckage set off alarms immediately after the towers came down, and George W Bush’s administration was soon under pressure to provide for first responders facing chronic and life-threatening conditions. It also came in for bitter criticism over its perceived slowness to act and refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of the risk. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency was instructed to tell New Yorkers that the air around “the pile” was safe.

One of the administration’s angriest critics at the time was then-New York Senator Hillary Clinton, who made the response to 9/11 her top priority from the off. The health risks from the site and their concealment by the federal government left her “outraged,” she said at an event captured on audio in 2003. “In the immediate aftermath, the first couple of days, nobody could know. But a week later? Two weeks later? Two months later? Six months later? Give me a break!”

One of the other New York politicians leading the charge from the start has been Democratic Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, whose district covers a swathe of the city across three boroughs. She continues to keep up the pressure to properly fund aid for the 9/11 victims – and has taken to wearing a firefighter’s jacket as she pushes legislation that would secure funding for decades to come. Today, she is at pains to keep up awareness of the disaster’s true toll.

“We lost nearly 3,000 people on 9/11,” she told The Independent, “and in the nearly 20 years since the attack, the death toll continues to climb.

“As we mark 20 years since that fateful day in 2001, we must remember that 9/11 isn’t just in the past. It is something that these responders, survivors, and their families are living with each and every day as they deal with their cancers, respiratory conditions, and the numerous other physical and mental health conditions caused by 9/11.

“As a nation, we have a moral obligation to take care of the people who took care of us and those who take care of them.”

The men and women Ms Maloney describes are widely regarded as heroes for their work on behalf of New Yorkers and Americans – people like Ms Borders, who themselves were exposed to the toxic fallout from the World Trade Center’s devastation, and research into what has happened to them as a result continues today.

Just this June, a special issue of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health pulled together the latest research conducted under the auspices of the WTC Health Program. The breadth of risks it covers speaks volumes: from cognitive impairment to self-medication with alcohol to cancer and lung disease, the thousands of people exposed to the attacks at close quarters have faced serious problems for years, and some are only just starting to emerge in earnest today.

At the centre of all this are individuals – and among the survivors, it is the doomed Marcy Borders whose image stands out. As the 20th anniversary of his picture rolls around, Mr Honda is circumspect about what it really means. “People might think of the photo as putting a human scale to the horrific events of the day. I’m proud of having taken that and other photos, but if the attacks never happened, that would be fine. There would be much less suffering as a result.”

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