Sierra Club's Green Small Screen
One of 9/11's most lingering national tragedies is also its least visible. Not the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, nor our increasingly surveilled and militarized "homeland," but the thousands -- or tens of thousands -- of people who were left physically and mentally wounded by the World Trade towers' collapse.
Take Mike McCormack. He was a member of the team of rescue workers who uncovered the flag that once flew atop the World Trade Center. That same flag appeared at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah, even as McCormack was struggling with chronic, debilitating health problems.
McCormack is one of the four first-responders profiled in a new television show debuting tonight at 8:30 p.m. EST on satellite television channel LinkTV. (It will be rebroadcast Jan. 26 at 8:30 p.m. EST.)
Tonight's episode is the first of the seven-part series, "Sierra Club Chronicles," a partnership between Sierra Club's media team, Sierra Club Productions, LinkTV and Brave New Films, Robert Greenwald's film company. [Full disclosure: Greenwald is a member of the board of directors of the Independent Media Institute, AlterNet's parent organization.]
Greenwald is the filmmaker behind the muckraking documentaries Outfoxed and Wal-Mart: the High Cost of Low Price. Explaining why he got involved with the project, Greenwald said, "I believe passionately in what the Sierra Club does, in their commitment to telling a story about the environment. And their stories are human, they're personal, they take you behind the headlines and into people's lives, and most importantly they give you an opportunity to do something about it."
The project has been a long time coming. "Chronicles" producer Adrienne Eramhall said the Sierra Club has long sought a way to broadcast its own unique stories. "We're trying to highlight grass-roots efforts on the ground that are also solution-based," she said. "It's directly in line with the way the club approaches our environmental activism."
Sierra Club spokesperson Orli Cotel added that the series is intended to give hope to environmental activists across the country. "We have a vibrant local environmental movement that doesn't get much coverage in the media. Our goal is to show that we are winning very concrete environmental victories, that there is hope, but it's happening at the local level and not in Washington."
Tonight's episode, "9/11's Forgotten Heroes," suggests a painful truth about our national priorities: the fallen heroes -- those justly lauded firefighters, police officers and paramedics who died in the line of duty -- as well as the more than 2,800 civilians who died in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, seem easier to praise than the legions who survived. The men featured in "Forgotten Heroes" are just four out of thousands of 9/11's long-suffering survivors. They have fallen afoul of the media's short attention span, as much as of the president's desires for quick vengeance and an even quicker return to the appearance of normalcy.
"Forgotten Heroes" depicts powerful, authentic stories of courage that have been rewarded by indifference at best, and often outright neglect. The half-hour show revolves around four men drawn together by their shared experiences after the disaster: Mike McCormack was a member of a search-and-rescue team, John Feal was a demolition supervisor horribly wounded at Ground Zero, John Sferaza was an iron worker who participated in the demolition, and Marvin Bathea was a paramedic who was trapped under the debris of the fallen second tower. After 9/11 the four had to navigate even stranger territory: the halls of Washington, D.C., seeking money allotted for their ongoing health care that the government has since rescinded.
Viewers also learn how the White House downplayed the risks posed by the site's air quality. As John Sferaza says in the show, "In my entire life, I have never witnessed, nor ever heard of green smoke. I witnessed this on many occasions [at the WTC]." Just three days after the towers' collapse, as the first workers were returning to Lower Manhattan, cleanup crews had not received adequate respirators. Even those with masks found them clogged so quickly in the dirt-, ash- and smoke-ridden environment that they became useless within hours.
As the nation has seen repeatedly over the last five years, disaster response is not the Bush administration's strong suit. The health precautions taken by the government during the cleanup of the World Trade towers bordered on nonexistent.
Even more disturbing is the sheer indifference survivors have to contend with. McCormack and the others are fighting only for the health care they were promised. Two of the men take between 12 and 22 different prescription drugs to help control their ailments. Like thousands of others who breathed the toxic air at Ground Zero, they suffer from chronic respiratory problems known as "WTC cough." Given all they've endured, it's appalling to see them scramble to reclaim the funding that the government pledged and then rescinded.
Following the formula that worked so well for his feature films, Greenwald and the Sierra Club are organizing house parties to view the first episode of "Chronicles." Sierra Club's Orli Cotel believes house parties are changing the way people watch television: "TV doesn't have to be an apathetic, couch-potato media; it can be a grass-roots organizing and activism tool. You can watch TV, sure, but then you can discuss it with your friends and take action."
Greenwald is convinced the grass-roots model reaches people who would otherwise miss these films. "Think about it for a minute," he said. "The people who are going to pay eight or nine bucks to see a movie already really want to see it or already agree with its message. But if your neighbor invites you to come over for a beer and the Wal-Mart film, you're much more likely to come."
If you don't have satellite television or can't find a house party in your town, you can download the entire show from SierraClubTV.org. Future episodes of "Sierra Club Chronicles" will cover the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, DuPont's dioxin pollution in Mississippi, devastating oil drilling on public ranchlands in the West and more.
As for the forgotten heroes of 9/11, Sierra Club official Suzanne Mattei says there is still much that people can do. "In my mind," she said, "people like John Feal and John Sferaza have really become heroes twice, because in their own pain, in their own grief, in their own distress over their loss of health, they're still fighting. They're not just fighting for themselves, they're fighting for everyone. And our country still won't do right by them."