Chris Baumann, 47, Lindenhurst

Former NYPD officer Chris Baumann poses at his

Former NYPD officer Chris Baumann poses at his Lindenhurst home. (Jan. 27, 2011) (Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas)

New York City police officer in traffic division, assigned to lower Manhattan. Worked at Ground Zero on Sept. 11. Has not worked since. Retired on disability April 30, 2004

 

When Chris Baumann goes to sleep at night, he knows what awaits him: nightmares that he likens to a panther crouched at his feet.

"Picture going to bed every night, and having a full-grown panther, claws and all that, waiting to jump on you," he said. "Could you go to sleep?"

Baumann said he's been wracked by those dreams since Sept. 11, 2001, when the New York City traffic cop rushed to the Twin Towers and encountered "the end of the world."

Just before the first tower fell, Baumann had been helping to evacuate people from a nearby building on Rector Street, he said. As he ran back toward the towers and was about two blocks away, he heard a rumbling and saw a large, dark cloud. Baumann was thrown backward, landing on his back 10 feet away in total darkness. He groped to find his legs as he gulped air turned black by pulverized debris.

A woman died in his arms. Another screamed as she lay fatally injured. But the most haunting picture for Baumann was of a small arm in the rubble. It was detached and burned, and at first Baumann thought it was a doll's arm. He fought to believe that the child it belonged to was somehow still alive - hurt, but alive.

"I was in the center of hell," Baumann said.

Only later did the toll become clear. Baumann's eyes were burned by jet fuel, leaving him blind for months. A concussion he suffered when he was slammed backward has left him with severe memory loss - great swathes of his history with his wife of 24 years, AnneMarie, have been erased.

His thyroid and lungs have nodules, and discs in his neck and back are herniated. He has nerve damage - one of his legs always feels wet, like he brushed against the bathroom sink. He had a coronary double bypass, and takes a handful of pills a day - but avoids other prescribed pills, because he can't afford them. Although his eyesight has been mostly restored, Baumann said he's in constant pain. He tried to commit suicide shortly after 9/11, while he was blind, by deliberately walking into traffic on Sunrise Highway.

Dr. Dominic Posillico of Farmingdale, Baumann's internist, said most of Baumann's conditions are directly related to his day of work at Ground Zero, and that he's at risk of developing cancer from the toxic dust he inhaled but was unable to expel. Under the 2001 Victim Compensation Fund, Baumann received a low six-figure settlement (his family will not disclose the exact amount), but his condition has worsened since then. His brain injury was diagnosed too late to apply, and his earlier compensation now might prevent him from getting any payout under Zadroga, although he will get health care paid.

He's on a disability pension and receives Social Security payments for his illnesses.

Dr. Jim Melius, an epidemiologist and chairman of the steering committee for the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program, said no one could predict in 2002 how sick or disabled workers would become.

"Most of these people [now] have chronic respiratory disease. In 2002-03, they were presenting with asthmalike symptoms. We treated them with the standard, long-term asthma meds and hoped they'd be OK," Melius said.

Looking back, Baumann wonders whether he should have accepted the earlier compensation. "We were all physically and emotionally hurt. Who thought straight after 9/11? And here you have people saying that you gotta make decisions now."

The payment went to bills, and to presents for the couple's two children, Christopher, 16 and Courtney, 18, to make up for the hardships the family faced after 9/11. With his wife working only part time, Baumann fears the family probably will have to move.

"We're making it now, but what worries me is 10 to 20 years from now," he said. "I'm on a raft in the ocean, and the raft has a slow leak."

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