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Lawsuit says poisons killed 57 at WTC site

Fifty-seven Ground Zero workers have died and thousands of others have been sickened by exposure to a noxious mix of chemicals released when the World Trade Center was reduced to smoldering rubble, their lawyer said yesterday.

But in a courtroom blocks from the site, the city denied responsibility, saying its contractors were acting in the nation's defense as they worked to restore Ground Zero in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

"The city and the contractors stepped up to the plate on 9/11 and worked 24/7 until the job was done," city attorney James Tyrrell told Manhattan Federal Judge Alvin Hellerstein. "They jumped in, no questions asked, and did their duty."

The city is trying to beat back a class-action lawsuit filed by some 8,000 workers and the families of the dead who claim the city, in its haste to clear the site, exposed them to dangerous levels of asbestos, lead and other toxins.

Dozens have died from cancers accelerated by respiratory diseases brought on by their work at Ground Zero, said David Worby, an attorney who represents the plaintiffs. The sick include firefighters, cops, construction workers and other emergency personnel.

Tyrrell argued that the city should be shielded from negligence claims because it was in the midst of a national emergency that demanded a "robust" response.

But Worby said Ground Zero ceased being an emergency site in the days after the attacks when Bush administration officials declared air quality at Ground Zero safe.

"At a certain point, the emergency ends and the regular rules have to apply," Worby said. "The tragedy is this is only the beginning [of the number of] the people who are sick and dying."

Hellerstein questioned Tyrrell about the "prolonged nature" of an "emergency" cleanup that lasted eight months.

The city, together with the Port Authority and several other defendants, will continue making its case before Hellerstein today.

Originally published on June 23, 2006

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