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The Reeler Blog

Reeler Pinch Hitter: Maria Pusateri, Filmmaker

[Note: Reeler editor S.T. VanAirsdale is taking some time off, but The Reeler is in the good hands of trusted friends and colleagues. Maria Pusateri is the director/producer of Vito After. She is also a board member of CineWomen NY and the Programming Director of its screening series at the Pioneer Theater.]

As we near the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, tens of thousands of people are suffering from 9/11-related illnesses ranging from debilitating chronic respiratory disease to rare cancers, heart ailments and psychological distress -- and not only among the 9/11 responders. They're afflicting downtown residents, workers and volunteers from the New York area to all over the country. Sadly, the death toll is rising.

Det. Vito Friscia, the subject of Maria Pusateri's documentary Vito After, visiting the Fresh Kills Landfill Recovery Exhibit at the NY Historical Society in 2004 (Photo: DreamSlate Productions)

When I first embarked on my journey of making Vito After in April 2002, there was very little in the media about the responders who were ill. My brother-in-law, Vito Friscia, is one of them. A devoted family man and dedicated NYPD homicide detective, he contributed to the rescue efforts on 9/11 and was engulfed in the treacherous cloud of debris and dust as the second World Trade Center tower collapsed. He worked at Ground Zero for a few weeks afterward and then for many months at the Staten Island Landfill, sifting through the toxic rubble searching for signs of those who perished. He soon became sick with sinus and lung ailments.

I was humbled by his bravery and driven by a need to better understand someone who instinctively risks his life to help others. After reading a Newsday article concerning the danger to workers at the landfill (where Vito himself was pictured in the photo of two workers at the sifters), I wanted to learn more about these illnesses afflicting the responders. I was compelled to explore his life in the aftermath, trying to understand how an everyday hero copes with a tragedy of this magnitude. It wasn’t until five months later that he finally agreed to be the subject of my documentary.

I was hard-pressed to find any information at all outside a few stories in local newspapers. Later that year, the WTC Workers & Volunteers program started up at Mt. Sinai Medical Center, where I was able to acquire interviews in March 2003. By February 2004, I was trying to obtain info from the NYPD specifically about how many police officers were sick and what their diagnoses were. I got nowhere. The department would not provide any information; it seemed as if they were trying to hide something. Eventually, I realized it was the police unions who would help me, and thankfully, they did. I was able to interview Michael Palladino, the president of the Detectives Endowment Association, obtaining information at that time that would have been considered a news scoop. The Sergeants Benevolent Association was also very supportive of the film, even donating some of its completion funds.

At first, I thought I was on track to expose this health crisis. Gradually, though, more and more articles appeared in local newspapers and media. Now there are too many stories each day, and the 9/11 health crisis just continues to grow. The coverage now is not only local, but national and international as well. Just Google "9/11 health" and you'll come up with hundreds of entries. Oddly enough, I even find myself being part of the story now. A recent Staten Island Advance review of Vito After showed up in some of the 9/11 health alerts I subscribe to, alongside news about Michael Moore's Sicko and Hillary Clinton bashing the feds over 9/11 toxic dust. It was hard to be excited about the extra publicity, knowing the reason it was even on the radar is because of the enormity of the 9/11 health crisis. I would prefer if there were never any need for these 9/11 health alert postings in the first place.

With all the extensive and mounting exposure the 9/11 health issues have had, I was beginning to think my little film about one responder would lose its relevance. Surprisingly, it's had a second life in festivals and other screenings, including this weekend's Fire Island Golden Wagon Film Festival (where it screens Aug.18) and Sept. 5 at Anthology Film Archives' NewFilmmakers series. Viewers who are already familiar -- or maybe even inundated -- with the 9/11 health crisis news are compelled by Vito's character and touched by his story. He is just one of the tens of thousands waiting for the "other shoe to drop," not knowing whether he's going to be in the next wave of gravely ill 9/11 recovery workers.

We need to keep their stories alive until something is done to help those who are not getting the help they need. Time is running out for many of them. Please look into charitable organizations including Unsung Heroes Helping Heroes and Faithful Response and donate what you can to help 9/11 responders in need of health care and other support.

Posted at August 15, 2007 5:54 AM

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