Posted by: Deb Henry | 11/11/2014

Deb, “Environmental Activist”

Growing up, there was very little chance I was going to be nominated most likely to become an environmental activist: I grew up eating food without the ability to think about where it came from or what it was doing to my body because we were tight on money. I drank water from disposable plastic bottles without thinking about where they were made or where they would end up. And I certainly didn’t think of a bicycle as a form of transportation because we lived in a generic suburb that didn’t exactly give you anywhere to go safely except around the block (and only on the sidewalk, of course).

On September 11th, 2001 — my world changed.

I almost lost my father, a FDNY Captain. I almost lost my uncle, a FDNY Battalion Chief, but he survived both collapses. I did, however, lose my cousin, FDNY Firefighter and EMT Joseph Patrick Henry; the cousin I had looked up to for a lot of my life because he was so, so playful, and just a little bit older than me.  His three brothers, also FDNY and NYPD, lost their baby brother.

4 brothers

Joey, Eddie, Danny and Michael, the weekend before 9/11 at the Irish Fair in Brooklyn

My dad could tell me stories about each of the firefighters who had died that day. He knew their kids’ names and all of their families. It is absolutely brutal how much he loved and valued his FDNY brothers and the job they were doing. I didn’t see him for months because he was at Ground Zero with every free second he had.

My mom called me shortly after noon on 9/11 and said “your dad is OK” — but I was confused — because why wouldn’t he be OK, right? What I didn’t realize was that he had been on-shift that day, but happened to be in a yearly training, far away from Ground Zero when the call went out about the attack. It had not occurred to me until that moment that rescue workers had made it inside the towers. Then my brother calls and tells me our cousin is missing. My heart sank. Jim calls me back and corrects himself: it was the firefighter/ EMT/ Probie cousin, the youngest, the baby of 4 boys. I started crying and a stranger grabbed me and hugged me with everything he had. (I’ll never forget that hug.)

Dad went to lots of funerals over the next few weeks. We didn’t see him for months. He was working, clearing the site looking for survivors, or at funerals. The Environmental Protection Agency told the firefighters the air was fine to breathe, so they didn’t have or wear dust masks for almost 10 days. The older radios the firefighters were using on 9/11 weren’t working properly that day, so many of them probably didn’t get the message the first tower had collapsed and that they should get out soon. Rudy Giuliani didn’t want to pay the search workers overtime, so he tried to cut back responders to 40 hours/ week so they’d move faster and be less reverent about their work.

“What Giuliani showed following 9/11 is a disgraceful lack of respect for the fallen and those brothers still searching for them. He valued the money and gold and wanted the [World Trade Center] site cleared before he left office at the end of 2001 more than he valued the lives and memories of those lost.” — IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger

Here is my dad at a protest specifically pushing back on that policy:

Dad, the original protester.

Dad, the original protester.

I read all of the bios of the deceased in the NYTimes to show my respects and try to wrap my head around the magnitude of what had been lost. The NYT printed around 200 words about 15 people, each day, in the paper for a long time. There’s a whole book of the bios now. Dad may have a crappy memory, but he can tell me stories about 100+ of those firefighters to this day. They all came up on his watch.

I didn’t eat for 2 weeks. I dropped my classes that semester and spent time at home with my family. I grew up quickly and started paying attention.

My mission seemed (naively) simple at that point: I needed to stop buildings from falling down on firefighters. I changed my major to Civil and Environmental Engineering with a focus on Structural Engineering. As the days ticked on and the country slid towards war in Afghanistan, I began processing the fact that someone hated us THAT MUCH and I tried to suss out why. Being 19 and naive, it took me a while to start to put the pieces together. I began trying to “use less oil” and changing my habits in a way that would lead to less oil consumption and (what I thought would be) more autonomy from the global economy, more respect, less wars, less terrorist attacks.

I became frustrated during a class called “Transportation Planning” when I found out the whole class was about highway widening. I asked how trains and bicycles fit into the equation, but my professor moved on. After ranting at lunch, a friend who has spent time in Europe (and already rode his bike daily to class and was a bike messenger in NYC during the summers) recommended I start taking classes with John Pucher, a transportation economics legend from MIT who was a professor at Rutgers. While taking his classes, I began to see how many of the questions I had been asking in Civil Engineering about the WHY of our designs stemmed from Urban Planning and a misreading of the economics and cost-benefit of different decisions. I read Asphalt Nation and then Suburban Nation and all of the pieces started to click. I became a self-inflicted bibliophile. It felt like a landslide of understanding and I needed to know more. I’ve been striving in understanding and sharing those overlaps ever since. Our transportation and infrastructure choices lead to economic choices which lead to health impacts and so on.

A few years ago, my dad was diagnosed with and fought lung cancer from 9/11. He had surgery and had part of his lung removed. He’s now fighting early stages of colon cancer, also connected to 9/11. My mom’s cousin Patrick Finnegan, FDNY, just lost his fight to cancer a few days ago. On September 22, 2014, three 9/11 fire fighters lost their battles with cancer on the same day. My cousins have lung problems as a result of 9/11 and have left the fire department.  Our Congress even fought to not include cancer coverage for 9/11 responders, and yet, we re-elect them. More than 1,100 people who worked or lived near the World Trade Center on 9/11 have been diagnosed with cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Average and normal people lose their battles to environmentally inflicted cancers every single day as a result from water and air that is seemingly clean, but somehow isn’t important enough for media coverage.

Dad is now retired after 33 years as a firefighter and spends his days with my mom playing softball and hanging out with his firefighter friends who are still with us:

Retired FDNY

Retired FDNY enjoying the sun in Florida, 2012

Mom and Dad in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, 2010.

Mom and Dad in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, 2010

So, yes, technically I am an environmental activist — because that’s the easiest box to put me in. But I really want people to understand that I can’t unsee all the dots my personal experience have helped me connect. I come at “environmental activism” from a very different angle than many of my allies fighting to end contamination all over the world. We all have our stories about how we got to where we are, and this is my story. I just really just want innocent families who are good people and who love their children to stop being manipulated and used as pawns in a fight they didn’t start… and I want people to be able to find communities of people they connect with that make them feel genuine, safe, empowered and welcomed.

peaceful up dancing

Peaceful Uprising members dancing in solidarity outside Tim DeChristopher’s trial; March 2011. Photo by Sallie Dean Shatz

… and I want my brand-new nephew to have clean air, clean water and four loving grandparents for years to come. Xoxo.


James <3, Photo by his momma Sarah Henry of Ink Anchor Photography in New Jersey


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