Another Longtime Downtown Resident Succumbs to September 11-Related Illness
Juanita Gore-Thomas, a resident of Lower Manhattan starting in October, 1971 (when she and her husband purchased a home in the Seaport District’s newly opened Southbridge Towers), died on February 17 at 77 years of age. The cause of death was colon cancer, associated with exposure to toxic debris from the collapse of the World Trade Center. She follows her husband of more than 30 years, Norman B. Thomas, whose life was claimed by September 11-related chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and lung disease, in May, 2021, at age 74.
Their daughter, Downtown community leader Mariama James, the area’s first Black elected District Leader of either party, recalls that the family moved to Lower Manhattan at time when the neighborhood was an office district with no more than a few hundred residential households. “My dad worked for Citibank, at 20 Exchange Place, where he became known as the second Black vice president on Wall Street,” she remembers, “having risen up the ranks first at Chase Manhattan Bank and later Citibank, remaining for over 20 years, until his retirement. My mom worked at Bache, on Gold Street, and I was a latchkey kid, attending local schools. Race was something we were conscious of, but in different ways. My best friend growing up was Italian, and her family loved me, but often made clear that I was an exception in their eyes.”
“Even though my dad worked for a bank and my mother worked for a stock broker, they were urban hippies, who were revolutionary for their time,” she observes. “Another early example of becoming aware of race was hearing my parents talk at the dinner table about being arrested in South Carolina. My mother was locked up for being Angela Davis,” the 1960s radical leader, “because she had a similar hairstyle, and they put my father in handcuffs for explaining that she wasn’t Angela Davis. And those officers left my sister, who was three years old, standing alone on the street corner where they arrested my parents.”
Having taken up residence in Lower Manhattan, Ms. Gore-Thomas plunged headlong into the life of the fledgling community, dedicating her free time to Parent-Teacher Association meetings and volunteering at public radio station WBAI, then located at 120 Wall Street. In the early 1990s, she became a leading advocate for the designation of the newly discovered African Burial Ground (on Broadway, between Reade and Duane Streets) as a National Monument.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Gore-Thomas headed for her office at the Deutsche Bank Building on Liberty Street, across the street from the World Trade Center. (By this time, Ms. James, now pregnant with a daughter of her own, had taken over the Southbridge apartment.) As she approached the office, emergency responders turned her away. But within a week, she was ordered to return to work. “She believed our government when we were told the air was safe to breathe,” reflects Ms. James.
In the years that followed, Ms. James would join Community Board 1, be elected a District Leader, and become an outspoken advocate for providing healthcare and financial compensation to first responders and survivors of the September 11 attacks. These efforts took on a personal resonance in 2017, when Ms. Gore-Thomas was diagnosed with Stage Four colon cancer, a condition that federal health officials now certify as caused by exposure to environmental toxins on September 11, and in the weeks and months that followed.
“She was told that she had only a few weeks left to live, perhaps a month or two at most,” Ms. James remembers, noting that the extended family gathered in anticipation of her imminent passing. “But my mother was a fighter, and she never stopped struggling, and kept beating the disease back for almost six years.” Multiple rounds of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy brought Ms. Gore-Thomas back from the brink. She remained relatively healthy until last August, when the cancer returned, having spread to her lungs, liver, and adrenal glands.
This journey will be top of mind for Ms. James this morning, when she is scheduled to speak in the U.S Capitol building at the announcement of a proposed new federal law that aims to close a pending budget shortfall in the World Trade Center Health Program. While Congress allocated $1 billion in additional funding for the program at the close of 2022, the Health Program still faces a substantial long-term shortfall, and also excludes some responders who served at the Pentagon and the site of the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, when passengers overpowered the hijackers.
“I am a September 11th survivor,” Ms. James reflects. “My parents were September 11th survivors, until they were taken. They both wanted me to do this. My children suffer from conditions they shouldn’t have at this age. My friends’ children are suffering from cancer.”
“On my birthday in 2006,” she adds, “my friend and neighbor, Allen Tannenbaum, who also happened to be a famous photographer, told me he was doing a photo spread called, ‘9/11: Still Killing.’ He said he wanted to come and photograph my family and friends, with our medications. With the exceptions of me and my children, every person in that spread, including my mother and my father, has since died. People here continue get sick and fight for their lives on a daily basis, and they keep dying.”
Ms. James’s family history with September 11 continues to reverberate in other ways. She is one of the co-founders of the Coalition for a 100 Percent Affordable Five World Trade Center, the local grassroots organization that is pushing for rent-protected housing at the last remaining development parcel in the World Trade Center complex, where the official plan calls for predominately market-rate luxury apartments on the publicly owned site. “My mother is gone because she went back to work,” Ms. James reflects, noting that the tower planned for Five World Trade Center will be precisely on the spot of the former Deutsche Bank Building. “Thankfully, not everyone who was here that day is dying, but many of us, particularly those in treatment for September 11-related conditions, would benefit from housing security. And there could be no more fitting tribute to those who are gone.”
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