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3 Years Later, Deliverance Elusive

At 52, she can handle shopping in a convenience store, but she cannot stand the rigors of walking and choosing from the vast selection at a supermarket. Migraines overtake her every afternoon.

"I used to have a beautiful home, lots of friends, the ability to think fast on my feet and a good memory," she said. "I know that because my mom and dad told me."

April Gallop and her son, Elisha, now 3, were at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001 -- her first day back from maternity leave. Both were hurt. (Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)

Even among those whose workday lives appear to have returned to normal, there are lingering undercurrents of depression and trauma. Some are civilians, some military. And some are the men and women of the Arlington fire department.

For the Arlington firefighters who for nearly two grueling weeks led the rescue and recovery efforts at the Pentagon, the world after Sept. 11 will never really be the same. They may not have lost any of their own that day, but the 334 New York firefighters who perished in the World Trade Center weigh heavily on their minds. They know what could have happened here. It tested them in ways few could have imagined.

"9/11 was a plane crash, a building collapse, a fire and a terrorist attack all in one," said Dodie Gill, who runs the county's highly praised employee assistance program and has worked closely with its firefighters since Day One.

A few have paid a heavy price for what they did and saw -- haunted especially by the images of severed body parts, of faces literally peeled away like masks by an intensity of heat that even veterans had not felt before.

"We deal with death and destruction all the time, but this was a different thing," Staples said.

So was the degree of deeply strained or severed marriages, panic that twice sent one firefighter into heart afibrillation, an attempted suicide and, at last count, a dozen early retirements provoked by the emotional aftershocks.

Only days ago, Staples, who wears dual hats as safety officer and union leader, put forward claims for stress-related disabilities for additional co-workers. He confesses to worrying about several more individuals he wishes would seek help, as does the boss, Chief James Schwartz.

"We're trying to get some of this stuff out in the open," Schwartz said. Especially before another terrorist act, which the chief is certain his department will face. "There are a number of things that keep me up at night," he said. "Where we are in the world and what that means for this organization is foremost among them."

The firefighters also wonder what other problems may be on the horizon.

They think about the possible parallels to New York, where the label of "World Trade Center cough" refers to a cluster of major respiratory problems afflicting hundreds of firefighters since 2001. Crews labored inside and outside the Pentagon in a stew of burning fuel, decaying human remains, dust, asbestos and silicon particles and no one knows what else.

Mike Beall might be the miner's canary. The 45-year-old firefighter soon will see a pulmonologist for a persistent, phlegmy cough that he began noticing not long before the first Pentagon anniversary. Right here, he motions on his chest. "Like I've got water on my lungs."

It's not gotten that much worse, but it's not gone away either. It's been followed by wheezing, then a touch of bronchitis, and of late Beall has been coughing up gunk that looks like white cotton candy.

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