Mpozi Tolbert and 9/11

Dateline: Fri 08 Sep 2006

MpoziThe death of Mpozi Tolbert on July 3 prompted many publications and people to pay tribute to what was perhaps his most stunning professional achievement: he was in New York City in 2001 to document the ravages of 9/11.

Now Tolbert's family in Philadelphia is asking whether a connection may exist between his exposure to the toxins in lower Manhattan during the time he was there -- a period of about five days -- and his untimely death five years later at the age of 34. Tolbert began gasping for air in the newsroom on the evening of July 3, and he was pronounced dead less than an hour later at Wishard Memorial Hospital.

This blog and the National Association of Black Journalists have raised questions about preparedness by the Gannett-led Star to handle a medical emergency in the newsroom. Lack of formal CPR training, no defibs, difficulty getting thru quickly to 911 on company phones and blocked elevator access for the EMT crew were problems experienced that night.

Tolbert's father, Rudy Tolbert, 67, who contacted me a few weeks ago, said he shares those concerns as well. "But for right now, regardless of what they did do or didn't do or should do, the issue for us still is: what prompted his respiratory distress?''

Mpozi, the oldest son of Rudy Tolbert and Maisha Jackson of Philadelphia, had no medical history of asthma or any respiratory ailments as a child, said his dad. As a young man, he was always very healthy, his father said. He was well the weekend before he died -- he was in Philadelphia to visit his family.

But Mpozi sought emergency medical treatment at a hospital in Indianapolis after he returned from New York in September of 2001, said Rudy Tolbert. "Mpozi told his mother that he had trouble breathing after being in New York, and he had to go to the hospital," said Tolbert. "But we do not know which hospital he went to. We think he was living on Pennsylvania (Street) at the time."

Tolbert is trying to get that information, and he is hopeful that a reader of this blog or a friend of Mpozi's may be able to help. Tolbert said he and Mpozi's mother have tried to get their son's medical history from Wishard Memorial Hospital, where Mpozi died. But "we cannot get medical information from the hospitals," he said.

He is also frustrated by the Marion County Coroner's office. Deputy Director Alfarena Ballew told me two weeks ago that her office could subpoena Mpozi's hospital medical records if the coroner knew which hospital he visited following 9/11. Two weeks ago, after ruling out a heart attack or pulmonary embolism as cause for his death, the office was still conducting tissue tests as part of their autopsy. Calls to Ballew today were not returned.

Rudy Tolbert would like to see a more proactive stance on the part of the coroner in Marion County.

"I am informed by personnel in the Philadelphia medical examiner's office and the office in Harrisburg that coroners' offices can issues subpoenas to hospitals in a geographical area," said Tolbert. "It's hard to believe that the Indy coroner's office is so laid back when so much is going on elsewhere."

"So much" is indeed going on. The five-year anniversary of 9/11 has prompted many investigative stories about the health effects on those in the city. In a Tuesday story, the New York Times reported that the Bush administration in February named Dr. John Howard to coordinate the federal government's 9/11 health efforts.

According to the NYT, the World Trade Health Registry includes 71,437 names -- those are 9/11 responders, New York residents or Downtown workers. More than half reported they had experienced "new or worsening respiratory problems since 9/11." This is from a survey released in April by the registry.

Another study in 2004 by Mt. Sinai Hospital's Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine showed that half of the 1,138 workers it examined had serious respiratory problems.

Did Mpozi suffer lung damage as a result of 9/11?

A newspaper buddy, who asked not to be identified, said Mpozi told him on the year anniversary of 9/11 that he "had problems with his lungs because of what he was exposed to...the debris was snowing over there (in NYC)."

Mike Reeves is president of the Local 416 Indianapolis Firefighters. He was one of 62 firefighters, civilians, dog handlers, etc. who went to NYC from Central Indiana, leaving about 5 p.m. on 9/11. Mpozi and Tom Spalding, who at the time covered public safety for the paper, went along with them on the bus.

But the Star reporter and photographer were in NYC "illegally," noted Reeves -- they were not part of any Federal Emergency Management Agency-sanctioned group. And they were both kicked out as soon as FEMA realized they were there. They had to get back to Indy on their own the following Sunday.

Reeves said he knows Mpozi was very close physically at times to the collapsed Twin Towers. "He got some good shots," he said.

FEMA-sponsored rescue workers were issued protective masks. Spalding and Tolbert also wore masks. But it is uncertain if Tolbert could have worn his while taking photos.

According to sources at the Star, neither Tolbert nor Spalding signed any release forms regarding their health or safety as they covered the story. Nor did Tolbert file any paperwork with his superiors at the paper once he returned home, claiming 9/11 respiratory distress.

That's life in the big city for journalists, tho -- and doubly so for macho young guys who see their work as a sacred calling. Knowing both Tom and Mpozi, they would think first about getting the story and secondly about their personal well-being -- if they even considered the latter at all. This was, after all, the story of a lifetime.

But the firefighters, said Reeves, had a built-in safety net to guard their health. When they returned to Indianapolis, they all had to undergo chest X-rays and exams -- something mandated by FEMA. They have continued to have regular annual medical exams with an eye to 9/11-related ailments cropping up. Reeves said he initially heard a lot of talk about health concerns when his group returned from NYC, and less so now. "But it is always in the back of my head," he said.

For the family of Mpozi Tolbert, those concerns are in the front of their heads.

Rudy Tolbert is asking many questions -- of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, where National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health honcho Frank Hearl is riding herd, Tolbert said, on 9/11 health-related problem. He also has questions for the coroner's office here.

"Where were the (autopsy tissue) samples sent for examination?" he asks. "The AIT Labs? Do they have the capacity to examine samples from possible 9/11 victims?"

His only agenda is the spirit in which he raised his son, he said. "We ran our own school," Tolbert said of the community where Mpozi grew up.

"The parents were the school, and the mission was to challenge authority when things didn't make sense."

If you can help the Tolbert family answer their important questions, or if you have any relevant information, please use the comments section or contact me at


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