News bittersweet for those sickened by cleanup

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A Queens Village mother who believes she lost her son to the toxic dust at Ground Zero and a retired Kew Gardens Hills paramedic who survived the Sept. 11 attacks said Osama bin Laden’s demise is bittersweet because it can never repair the holes in their lives.

Constance Higdon said she does not feel any closure now that the fugitive terrorist is dead because the damage to her life has been done. Her son, Thomas Wesley Higdon, worked tirelessly at the former World Trade Center site to help his comrades and died two years ago unexpectedly of a case of pneumonia.

Although the city’s medical examiner is still trying to figure out what exactly caused the 106th Precinct detective’s death, Constance Higdon said she and her family believe the dust at the site affected his health, so the news of bin Laden’s death stirred up so many sad emotions in her.

“I feel relieved that they caught him, but I don’t have my son back. I just want to hug my son again,” she said.

Marvin Bethea, who worked for St. John’s Hospital that day, understands her pain. Bethea, who moved from Kew Gardens Hills to West Hempstead, L.I., last year, has had to deal with several medical problems that he believes stemmed from his surviving the burning towers. He is battling asthma, sinusitis, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

When he heard that U.S. Navy Seals had killed the man responsible for plotting the World Trade Center attack, his emotions got the best of him.

“I was stunned and I broke down and I cried,” he said.

Bethea, who has to take nearly 16 medications a day for his ailments, went back to Ground Zero Monday afternoon and was humbled by the outpouring of patriotism by visitors.

“You got people all over the place. It reminds you of what it was like after 9/11,” said Bethea, who suffered a stroke weeks after the attacks.

U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Astoria), who fought for the sick responders on Capitol Hill by sponsoring the Zadroga health bill, said bin Laden’s death could bring some measure of peace to those still suffering from the effects of the attack.

“Thousands of Americans lost loved ones on 9/11, and thousands more lost their health due to the toxic aftermath of the attacks. I hope that all those who suffered because of 9/11 can take some comfort from the fact that Osama bin Laden has been brought to justice by American forces,” she said in a statement.

Even though bin Laden has been removed from the world stage, Bethea said he and his fellow New Yorkers must remain cautious about future attacks.

“I’m not saying we have to live in fear, but it’s something we have to think about,” he said.

Higdon agreed. The New York University professor said there would always be threats against the city and its first responders’ lives would be put at risk.

“I have mixed feeling… I don’t feel this is the end,” she said.

Higdon has worked hard over the last two years to honor her son’s memory. Last month she awarded scholarships in his name to six students at his alma mater, St. Clare’s Catholic School in Rosedale.

Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4546.

Updated 10:39 am, October 12, 2011
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