A number of years after Bob Rinfrette helped with recovery of remains of victims of the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, he noticed he was having breathing difficulties.
Rinfrette spoke Tuesday of helping recover victims’ remains after the attack with his late cadaver dog, Buddy, as well as health issues he’s experienced as a result of his work. The terrorist attacks occurred at three sites in the United States 18 years ago today, now observed as Patriot Day.
Both Rinfrette and his wife, Vickie, who live in Limestone, said that they have no regrets that he served the country with his recovery efforts, despite the breathing issues that are believed to have resulted from working at a landfill during 12-hour shifts over a 10-day period.
A deputy with the Cattaraugus County Sheriff’s Office at the time, Rinfrette was called by former Sheriff Ernie Dustman a few days after the attacks to travel to Manhattan with Buddy, a yellow Labrador retriever trained in cadaver recovery.
“Back then, the cadaver dogs weren’t a big commodity,” Rinfrette recalled. “There were dogs (in the recovery effort) from all over the country.”
He was first called to work at Ground Zero at the World Trade Center site in Manhattan, but the following day was asked to travel with Buddy to a landfill where debris from Ground Zero was being hauled. The work was difficult as the remains of thousands of people killed in the attack were spread out over the ground.
“Everything was burned so it was just nasty smelling,” he remembered, noting Buddy had alerted pathology officials to the remains of a number of victims. “This was the biggest thing I ever encountered because it was so massive.”
During the long shifts, Rinfrette wore protective gear, but only was provided a paper mask, much like those used by painters, to shield his mouth and nose from the caustic fumes of the landfill. After the shifts, he stayed with Buddy at a church that provided makeshift lodging for the dog-handlers and dogs. After each search, Buddy, who wore no protective gear during his work, was washed and decontaminated in a large tractor-trailer unit called “Pet Planet.”
Despite this, Rinfrette believes his dog’s health suffered from the rescue effort, which led to Buddy’s early demise at the age of 10.
Rinfrette also believes the work at the site resulted in his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Now short of breath during most evenings, he is required to undergo nightly breathing treatments. A non-smoker, he began noticing the difficulty in breathing several years ago.
“Mostly in the evening I feel like I’m going to pass out” from the shortness of breath, he said.
His health problems are being treated and documented by area physicians as well as the World Trade Center Health Organization, which is helping with the cost of some of his medical care.
The Rinfrettes said they are grateful that Congress didn’t defund the organization’s compensation of the program for first-responders, as it helps pay the cost of Bob’s treatment.
“(The health organization) has sent me for physicals and blood work and stuff,” Rinfrette added.
Many rescue and recovery workers later developed respiratory and digestive system ailments potentially linked to inhaled and swallowed dust. Some were diagnosed with other illnesses, including cancer.
Research continues into whether those illnesses are tied to 9/11 toxins. A 2018 study did not find higher-than-normal death rates overall among people exposed to the dust and smoke, but researchers have noted more deaths than expected from brain cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and certain other diseases; and an unusual number of suicides among rescue and recovery workers. Studies also have suggested that highly exposed workers may face more problems, including somewhat higher death rates and a modestly higher risk of heart trouble, than less-exposed colleagues.
Over 51,000 people have applied to a victims compensation fund that makes payments to people with illnesses potentially related to 9/11; it has awarded over $5.5 billion so far. After impassioned advocacy, lawmakers this summer ensured it won’t run out of money.
For his part, Rinfrette continues to work on an on-call basis for the McKean County (Pa.) District Attorney’s Office with his dogs, which are trained to search for narcotics and explosives.
As for her husband’s health issues from his 9/11 recovery work, Vickie Rinfrette said it is difficult for both of them to deal with, but neither would have refused his response even if they could have known of the health problems he would develop.
“How could you say (to him), ‘No, you can’t go?’” she said.
He added, “We live in a different world today; we can’t be afraid.”