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Terrorism, evacuation and disability
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Sept. 18, 2001 -- In the aftermath of the terrorism at the World Trade Center towers, rumor and fact mix. There have been no news reports of the number of people with disabilities who worked at the World Trade Center; although surely their companies knew who they were.

News of disabled people, escaping and trapped, has not become a story in its own right but has been part of the broader coverage. Exceptions stand out: Deutsche Presse reported the story of Michael Hingson, a blind man who Deutsche-Presse news service reported had managed to escape with his guide dog's help (online at at ). USA Today reporter Bruce Horowitz's Sept. 13 story of Michael Benfante and John Cerqueira helping an unnamed disabled woman down the WTC stairwell " -- strapped in a special chair --" as he put it, has been much reprinted ("Two men help woman in wheelchair down 68 floors" available online from icanonline at The woman is never named. Other stories have surfaced as well: Robert Knowles told MSNC of seeing two people in wheelchairs left behind as others ran to the stairwell (

Newsday reported Sept. 15 that "Abe Zelmanowitz . . . stood by Ed Beyea, a Blue Cross employee who used a wheelchair, on the 27th floor" and that neither man has been heard from; the story has become an icon, told again by Pres. Geo W. Bush at the National Cathedral service on Friday (in today's New York Times, Zelmanowitz's sister, Rita Lazar, has a letter -- (registration required)).

Among the New York Times's Sept. 15 "snapshots" of the thousands missing was William Valcarcel, who his daughter said had gone to work and was presumably in his wheelchair Tuesday in his office on the 87th floor of 2 World Trade Center.

We've been told of those seeing disabled people left behind, awaiting rescue -- one man told of seeing a "room full of people with disabilities who could not use stairs, (wheelchairs, walkers, etc), waiting to be rescued by the firefighters coming up the stairs." This unconfirmed rumor bears the ring of truth.

Evacuation plans for people with disabilities are rudimentary at best. Accessible Society Deputy Director William Stothers tells of his days as a newspaperman working on the upper floors of the San Diego Union Tribune; the only evacuation plan given him being "the names of two co-workers who were supposed to help me get out in an emergency." There was never any plan, Stothers said; oftentimes these colleagues weren't even working the same hours as Stothers.

In a private email, a woman told of having met just the previous week with "people at a university" who were discussing evacuation of people with disabilities from dorms during an emergency. "I suggested they get the LifeSlider for saving mobility-disabled students, but they wondered about liability and how much space it would take up in the stairwell when other people were also trying to get out," she wrote.

No website adequately addresses the issue. Stothers, who edited Mainstream magazine until its closing, points out that in the situation following the 1994 Calif. earthquake showed services like the American Red Cross unable to deal with disability; of inaccessible shelters and deaf people turned away from services because they could not be understood. ("Earthquake!" by Jim Hammitt, Mainstream magazine, May, 1994; "Disaster," by Douglas Lathrop, Mainstream magazine, Nov., 1994).

Too little is being done to design buildings with thought to evacuation of people with disabilities when elevators no longer work. Some worry that in the wake of last week's disaster, companies will again be reluctant to hire people with disabilities, fearing liability.

"I'd never make it out of there, not only because I couldn't walk down the stairs in any kind of timely fashion, but likely too because I would have been told to wait and the fireman will come in and get me and use the evacuation chair that rolls downstairs," says Ohio State University's Johnson Cheu. (

"Would I expect a stranger to risk his life to save me were I trapped by a disaster?" Gary Presley, who runs the site, muses. "Would I want a stranger to lose his life attempting to save me in a disaster?" (

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