New York Times Neediest Cases

Sickened in Rubble After 9/11, a ‘Lost Soul’ Longs for Her Old Life - New York Times

Construction sites, ubiquitous in New York City, set off pangs of loss within Susan Bentley.

“I can’t walk out of the house without seeing a rig somewhere,” she said. “Sometimes I find myself lingering around job sites. Like a lost soul.”

Ms. Bentley was an ironworker for nine years. It was her knowledge ofsteel construction that placed her on the front lines of the search and recovery efforts at the World Trade Center site after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In 2003, she had to leave her job when her health declined dramatically. “It was a paradise,” Ms. Bentley, 47, said of her career. “There was something about opening up a crate of bolts and smelling them. It was fantastic; climbing the bridges, driving the trucks, working with the rigs. It was second nature for me.”

Her vocation had not always been so clear-cut. Ms. Bentley passed written and physical entry exams in a number of fields, and even briefly considered a career as a firefighter. But she had concerns that her small frame would not match her valor, that she might be unable to carry a larger person out of a burning building.

“I wouldn’t be able to live like someone dressed up as a hero, but not be able to fit that bill,” she said.

In 1990, she joined the New York City ironworkers’ union, Local 40. Her first job was as an apprentice on the Queensboro Bridge. In 1994, she was named “Apprentice of the Year” and remains the only woman of Local 40 to have received that honor.

On the job, Ms. Bentley did not shrink from the coarse language and vulgar jokes that were commonplace. Instead, she joined the fray. This unabashed tomboy had found her niche.

The job sculpted a strong body. At one time, Ms. Bentley boasted, her 125- pound frame could bench press twice her weight. She was smart, well-liked and trusted by everyone. A colleague once wrote in marker on her hard hat:

“Sue By U.”

“If Sue’s by you, you’re all right,” Ms. Bentley said.

On that morning in 2001, Ms. Bentley was working on the Triborough Bridge, where she watched as the second plane flew directly overhead and crashed into 2 World Trade Center, the south tower.

Her initial thoughts were of her mother and 5-year-old son, Cody. Hours after the towers collapsed, Ms. Bentley made her way to the Hell’s Kitchen apartment building where all three lived. Knowing that her family was safe, she left them. Having helped in the aftermath of the 1993 World Trade Cemnter bombing, she knew her expertise would be needed at ground zero. Ms. Bentley and her fellow ironworkers had the know-how to excavate 200,000 tons of fallen steel.

“You didn’t even think about it,” she said. “You just reacted. Once you start reacting, you continue. There’s a purpose, and you need to get it done. You need to help. People needed help.”

Ms. Bentley worked at the site for the next three months. Shortly after the cleanup, she began experiencing health problems, including severe respiratory issues and a blood disorder. Doctors told her that she had black lung disease and 15 months to live.

“I don’t think I slept a day that 15th month,” she said. Although Ms. Bentley has defied the prognosis, her life has been filled with difficulties. Her strength faded, her treasured identity stripped away, and she visits doctors multiple times a week. She has had several blood transfusions and relies on a nebulizer to help her breathe.

“I used to climb bridges like a cockroach,” Ms. Bentley said. “And now I can’t even climb up the stairs.” After Ms. Bentley was laid off from her job in 2003, she received unemployment benefits, which have since stopped. It has been a constant struggle to pay bills.

In 2008, she had fallen $6,000 behind in rent. Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, one of the seven agencies supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, intervened with money to prevent her eviction. The agency helped Ms. Bentley apply for modifications to keep her
rent affordable.

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