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December 19, 2022 30 mins

Franklin Lucely, Gilberto, and Ines cleaned up Ground Zero and New York City in the aftermath of 9/11 alongside hundreds of fellow undocumented Latin American workers. These American heroes discuss their experience on the ground during the days and months following 9/11 and the illnesses they developed as a result of their service. While the country has largely forgotten them – offering only token settlements, lack of robust healthcare, and no path to citizenship – they haven’t forgotten each other. They carry each other’s life stories and are open about their lives to those who will listen.

“Yo trabajaba 12 horas diarias los siete días de la semana.” –Franklin

“This group of people who sacrificed so much are so forgotten and they’re remembered on 9/11 for those days and then we go back to our lives.” –Rosa Maria Bramble, LCSW

Read more about the 9/11 Immigrant Worker Freedom Bill or work. 


Creator & Host: Maria Fernanda Diez 

Executive Producers: Gisselle Bances, Anna Stumpf, Nikki Ettore 

Producer: Pablo Cabrera, Arlene Santana, Dylan Heuer  

Associate Producer: Claudia Marticorena

Original Theme Music: Tony Bruno

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Episode Transcript

Available transcripts are automatically generated. Complete accuracy is not guaranteed.
Speaker 1 (00:00):
In the past when I thought about nine eleven, I
mostly thought of the white collar workers in the buildings,
the first responders, the passengers on the planes. For a
long time, those were the stories that I was focused
on until last year, during the twentieth anniversary of nine eleven,
I read this article about the Ground zero cleanup crew workers.

I was shocked and heartbroken that this was the first
time I was learning their stories. Honestly, we say never forget,
but there's this whole sector of people that's been forgotten.
New York didn't return to its quote unquote former glory
without the workers who literally, hour by hour, inch by inch,

cleaned up the streets of New York. Here is Franklin Ever,
he's one of the voices we'll be hearing from talking
about how he worked twelve hours a day, seven days
a week for three months. These clean up crews were

made up of mostly undocumented Latino workers. There were hundreds
of them, and they came from all over the America's
whether Mexico, Colombia. But they all ended up sick. Not
only did they have physical ailments because of their time

doing this job, but also a lot of psychological issues.
Whether it was two weeks to nine months that they
worked there. They took on a disease in order for
the city to heal, and unfortunately are left with very little.
These folks are also heroes, they might just not come

in the traditional package. This is their story. Welcome to
When You're Invisible. My name is Maria Fernanda, but I
know not everyone can rule. There are so it's also
fine to call me Maria. In today's world, we love
to tell stories about people who have reached the top,
like people who have achieved positions of cloud wealth power.

On this show, I won't be doing that. When You're
Invisible is my love letter to the working class and
others who are seemingly invisible in our society. Helped to
build a community here that will inspire you to have
generous conversations with others that are different from you, conversations
that might help you see life in an entirely different way.

When I first moved to New York, it was about
ten years after nine eleven. Obama was president, and it
was an urgent task to finish the Freedom Tower, which
the weather and the snow was preventing. Looking at what
ground zero looks like now, there are fountains at the
exact locations where the two towers used to be, and
around each fountain there's all the names of the people

who passed. Standing near those two fountains is the Freedom Tower,
a very modern aerodynamic building that was built specifically with
a bunch of safety precautions in mind to symbolize the
way America has grown from that day. And there's the Oculus,

which is our new subway station for the area. And
it's this big kind of shell like spine that's right
next to the museum. Now that we get to take
a beautiful, deep breath in the serene space, let's think
about this exact location, the day of nine eleven and
the days that followed. The pit pile hole, it had

so many names. It was created by the towers that fell,
and it seventy ft deep, that's deeper than a football field,
and it was fourteen acres wide. Debris not only of
the towers, but surrounding buildings were everywhere. The dust from
the site climbed all the way up past the Empire

State Building, which is three miles away. The fire at
ground zero burned for three months. This was a site
that these workers came upon one of those people was Franklin.

Franklin joins the interview, offering his collaboration and apologizing for
his delay. He had just wrapped up a panel at
Pace University in Manhattan. He felt it was a really
fruitful and beautiful experience. That so the He's originally from Lima,

Peru and arrived in this country April two thousand. He's
fifty years old now. Franklin is thoughtful, dedicated, and he
quietly looks after everyone who's around him. Yeah, you know,
you know, they we you know. When he arrived to

the United States, he was twenty nine going on thirty.
He was full of life and ready to work to
be able to help his mom and his four siblings
like the rest of us. Little did he know that
his life would change. On September eleven, the day of

nine eleven, Franklin was on his way to his latest
job assignment, which was to paint an apartment in Manhattan
not far from the Towers. As they were walking down Canal,
that's when they noticed sirens of firefighter police officers mean saying,
you know, they speculated that there was a fire. They

thought it was something normal, and that's when the traffic started,
but they were able to make it to work. Once
in the apartment, the owner actually turns on the TV
and tells them that something has happened. Not sure what

to do, they keep working, but then they find out
that the second tower has been hit, and the worst
news comes when they find out that both towers have fallen.
When they finally make it home, Franklin starts to learn
the full impact of that day. In that moment, Franklin

also learns about the various opportunities to go down to
ground zero and help clean up the area Marximum Restoration,
So the personnelity in that moment, it's something that Franklin

thinks he can help with. It's a moment where he
can give back to the city that has taken him in.
There were hundreds of workers and they were distributed across
the different buildings in the area. They literally cleaned up
every inch of three miles of Manhattan and they ended

up removing over one and eight thousand truckloads, so one
point eight million tons of debris from the site. He
was part of the cleanup crew for Holy Trinity Church
different banks and they had to clean walls, windows, throw
away all the debris and trash. He says they cleaned

brick walls and every time they left they would be
covered in dust. It felt like it would never end.
The chaos from that day lingered into the days that followed.
Cleaning up was not an organized event. Workers would go
where they were told, wherever they saw fit for that moment.

Giving one of hey given, Franklin discusses the difference between
the women's work and the men's work. Women mopped, swept,
did some of the lighter work, and while the men
did a lot of the heavy lifting. They would move
ladders and bring things up and down from the different
levels they worked on, and we're in charge of moving

the larger pieces of rubble. Franklin worked twelve hour days,
seven days a week for about three months. They were
doing all of this work without the proper equipment. Franklin says,
since there were so many of them and what these
companies wanted was to make some money, they ended up

doing all this work for less than nine dollars an
hour and with very little protection. Going to when you
form proportion, each worker got one mask, a thin paper
mask that was supposed to last them an entire week

of work. There was dust everywhere and in the air.
The chemicals and the asbestos were present since day one,
but unfortunately, all the workers were told that what they
were doing was perfect, really safe. Workers and first responders

began feeling symptoms starting as early as two weeks after
their exposure to these toxic materials, but as the years passed,
more and more people began showing symptoms of bigger problems.
They containing the quick with us time musters indefferent, commentingmonogy happy,

that's young. Twenty years later, it's been scientifically proven that
the people who were there developed problems, including cancer like
lung cancer and various other respiratory problems. Medical professionals were
able to and are still able to trace these illnesses

back to that person's work at ground zero. We'll be
back after a quick break. Now back to the show.

These hundreds of workers helped clean up New York City,
and yet they were never told of the health risks
involved with this job. The authorities were silent. Scientists across
the country, doctors, they were all silent. They all knew

that the dust had chemicals, they say. Nevertheless, they decided
to say the opposite, that everything was all good. The
air in Manhattan was clean and there's no contamination. Franklin

felt a tremendous pain. There was an intense burning in
his stomach. Since he comes from Peru and their medicine
really is only for the rich, his mom sent him
Cameramlet as a way to try and help him. In
Franklin's case, he has three pulmonary issues diagnosed. Even though

Franklin is fifty years old, he feels like he's a
sixty or seventy year old because day by day his
strength is deteriorating. Unsurprisingly, but sadly, Franklin's story isn't the
only one like this. Really, Colombia, are you a kind?

That's Lucie. She's from Colombia, from a small poor family
that had to flee debt collectors and so they moved
to the States in two thousands. She's somewhat of a
romantic in the way she views the world. She told
me everyone's love story, her love story, her friend's love story,
her friend's daughter's love story. Like she couldn't help herself.

When she first talks about going to Ground zero to
clean up, she says she didn't feel the obligation. She
really actually wanted to help New York look beautiful again.
She says the way they did that is just by

helping a little bit with the clean up and helping
it return to what it is now. She calls it
a little bit of clean up when they provided months
upon months and hours of work. After nine eleven, she

started her clean up job at Roger's Bank. Total the
bank was filled with offices and cubicles. They went to
work cleaning every inch of each office, including the pieces
of papers. One of the most horrible parts were the

giant windows. She was in charge of taking down the curtains,
and it was there where she could see everything. Saterdays,
you could see what she calls the disaster, the whole

that the towers left they were taking up bodies. She
worked under the same conditions that Franklin did and as
a result developed cancer and other problems. Call me and
know Camino Luce. Elly walks and walks in from one
moment to the next, she loses all her air. She says,

it feels like she's drowning in a pool. Normal. Another
Colombian who worked at Ground zero was Hilberto. He came
from a rural family of eleven unable to afford college,
he joins the military. After his military service, he says

there was no opportunity, so he moved to the US.
Hilberto is an optimistic dreamer who is appreciative of every
opportunity he gets. No photos. Nomo in Hiliberto says they
gave their whole heart in order to help the whole

world here from this moment, no friends. How much gil
Gilberto says that no yea that they would end up
with asthma and castrol intestinal problems. You're doing. He even
had a heart surgery and unfortunately the insurance didn't cover it.

So when my back Panti, one of the women who
worked with Luceli at Ground Zero, is a former Colombian
nurse enes and country maybe we need Mama. She came
to the States to help take care of her grandchildren
and her nieces and nephews. She counts herself blessed. During

my conversation with the Neez, she kept reiterating that she
was fortunate to be where she's at, that there are
many others who have it worse. She Santia. So even
while she was working, she started to develop issues with
her throat and her eyes, which the moment, giant dam

there's a lot of people from Ground zero who have
died of cancer. In says that at the moment, there's
a bunch of people going to the doctor with her.
In fact, Lucelli is a cancer survivor. Yes, they have
a really good friend who did not survive her battle
with cancer, and she lives behind a little girl. Additionally,

a lot of people have gone back to their home
countries disillusioned and hoping for care, only to be disappointed.
Franklin was in fact one of the people who at
one point journeyed back represented in the Bahamedy kind of
battle we don't Once in Peru, Franklin applied for humanitarian visa.

Many of the Ground Zero workers were told that this
would be a possibility for them. Yeah, I'll say, Malisa.
He waited seven eight months, and then he was told
that they had rejected him for the humanitarian visa. It

turns out that many people were in Franklin's position. Unfortunately,
the illnesses they have aren't covered on the humanitarian visa's
list of qualifications, and there isn't a category for their
work at Ground Zero. Franklin made the decision to return
to the States regardless of his status. He was seeking
help not only for his physical issues, but also the

psychological damages that came with his time at Ground zero.
More after this quick break, now back to the show.
It's heartbreaking to hear about the physical issues that they

incurred from their work, but beyond that, there's the stuff
you don't see. They're the psychological effects as well. Franklin
opened up about how his PTSD has affected him because
the youngsters post traumatic O. Franklin says he doesn't find

peace with his post traumatic stress disorder and other psychological problems.
So many of the workers have gotten cancer that Franklin
also deals with the looming stress of wondering when his

day will come palmonies, and he has friends who have
had part of their stomach removes, others with lung cancer,
and others even with breast cancer. Luce Elly also dealt

with something similar million She too has dealt with depression
and at one point she cried, every day, boy, don't
you know, don't m little thing? Maybe look. Luce Elli

says that she praised every morning, evening and lunchtime, but
unfortunately she's no longer able to go to a church
anymore because she feels like she's suffocating, and every time
she's in a crowd, memories from Ground Zero come flooding back.
This was all emotionally very difficult, which led them to

seek the help of a psychologist or a psychiatrist. To
seek help is huge in Latino cultures. We don't really
acknowledge when something is wrong. We tend to stick our
heads in the sand or just keep pushing through and
hope that with hard work it'll just change on its
own with time. And the fact that they were able

to acknowledge and accept what they were going through speaks
to their strength, along with how much they were suffering.
The level of trauma that they faced was something that
I felt was important to discuss and address and unpack
with someone who's trained in that field, you know, an
acknowledgement has not happened. I decided to speak with Rosa

Maria Bramble, who is a licensed and clinical social worker
in New York and has worked with the cleanup crew
workers since two thousand and six. We still have clients
who have not gone back to Ground zero because of
their high levels supposed traumatic stress disorder. They feel forgotten

and mainly because at least the compensation of having been
able to obtain a pathway to citizenship. The American heroes
have received on and off support throughout the years, but honestly,
it's never been enough. And it's also very much a
yo yo effect. They are given support and they feel safe,

they feel taken care of, only to have it disappear
within a few years. This group of people who sacrifice
so much are so forgotten and they're remembered on nine eleven,
and then we go back to our lives and really
really been compromised, and that unfortunately, Manya, many of those

workers who represent different countries by the way, Colombia and
is Suela while or Mexico have died. One of the
systemic supports that workers have really wanted is a pathway
to citizenship or a working visa. It's interesting to me
because all of these workers talk about how politicians will

come in and tell them how American they were for
completing their service, for doing this honor for the city,
and that they are one of us control. It does,

and then I want Franklin says that everyone knows and
can see they get pretty much the leftovers of resources
because they are Hispanic and undocumented documental. Franklin says, that's

all Leasta can be done for them. Help them be
able to go to Manhattan and find a job with
dignity and not have to get false documents from the streets.
I think one of the hardest pieces of the process
has been shattering the illusion of the American dream I see.

Franklin says, this country has always been seen as a
country of opportunities by immigrants and for everyone who has
wanted to be a part of it. But it's not easy.
Because of their ever evolving health issues, they aren't able
to work the way they used to. As a result,
they have lost a lot of wages. In two thousand,
fifteen and sixteen, a bunch of them finally did win

a workers compensation suit, which awarded them fifty thou dollars,
but that fifty thousand went directly to paying the bills.
You might be wondering the same question as me, which
is how can we help? There are a few ways. One,
there's a lot of organizations and go fund Me pages
out there to help support these families and individuals financially

and with different services. Two, we can call and writer
elected officials. There's a bill right now sitting in the
House of Representatives that's been there since two thousand and fourteen,
that would give these workers a pathway to citizenship and
therefore help ease some of their painted. Something that was

really important to me to also share with you all
was the sense of community and the strength that these
workers have. Every person who has talked to me had
a story to tell me about someone else, another friend,
a fellow worker, who had gone through what they had
gone through. They show up for each other. They're at

doctor's appointments, and they're at family gatherings, and when someone
dies as a result of their Ground Zero complications and illnesses,
they take care of their family. There's one woman that
Lucelli ma Jin's who is a light, her best friend
and is the one who she would work at Ground

zero with day in, day out. And she told me
how her friend would bring lunches for people who didn't
have the money or the means to afford to eat,
and that's how she lived her life with such care
and generosity. And when she died from her cancer, the
community actually took care of her daughter since she was

a single mom. There's so many stories like this. When
I was interviewing them. They were so eager to make
sure that I talked to everyone and make sure that
everyone's voices were heard. And this I saw in action
through Franklin when I joined one of their rallies during
the weekend of nine eleven this year. I watched him

just quietly observe and make sure that every worker who
wanted to speak got to speak to the journalists who
were present. I can only imagine what it's like to
come here full of life and dreams and to have
it shattered so viciously in a way. And I think,
to me, this is a moment where I very much

want America to do better, and I think we can
do better by these American heroes. To honor their voices.
I'll let Ines, lucell Hilberto, and Franklin close out the
show with their final thoughts. They mentioned the faith they
put in God, the kindness of strangers, and their love

for the next generation. You're you know how much come
on radio stays so postal industry, mysteria, the movieted by

yellow you know. As each one closed out their interview,
they all left me with words of gratitude and kindness.
Your second tempus the same you know, okay, loquest possibly

I'm missing most seven frontally contay Io nous. I feel

so honored in their appreciation, in the love and their stories.
I just have to reitererate how thankful I am to them,
not only for being open and sharing, but also their
beautiful sense of community and care, and ultimately for the
service they provide, not just for each other, but the

service they provided for New York and the healing that
we went through thanks to them. So thank you, goods, Yes,
thank you so much for listening to one year Invisible
and for joining me on this journey. Don't forget to like, comment,

and subscribe. You can find this episode and future ones
on the I Heart Radio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever
you get your podcasts. I'm your host and creator Maria Fern,
with executive producers Anna Stump, Nikki it Tour and producers
Dylan Hoyer, Arlen's Anthana and Pablo Cabrera, with associate producer

Claudia Martha Corena and post production producer Daisy James. Original
theme music by Tony Bruno. When You're Invisible is an
I Heart podcast network production in partnership with Michael Toura
Podcast Network. Yeah. Yeah,
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