Lori Ellis was at the forefront of the horrors of September 11.
As senior director of operations and merchandising at Century 21 on Cortlandt Street in Lower Manhattan — just yards from the Twin Towers — she watched desperate people jump out of windows after planes came down.
She also remembers what happened five months later, when she and her colleagues proudly reopened the large discount store, becoming the first major retailer near Ground Zero to do so.
“It was nothing short of a miracle,” said Ellis, 54. “We arrived early and customers were already lined up around the block. A few of our employees were scared, but I promised to meet them at the door and accompany them.
“People were crying and excited, but they were also scared,” she recalls. “There were still snipers on the rooftops and we weren’t sure if we were safe or not, but we got in anyway.”
Century 21’s grand reopening, replete with a ribbon cutting by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has become a shining symbol of the Big Apple’s resilience after the terrorist attacks.
Two decades later, the former employees of the now closed store represent something completely different: they are among those sick and dying from breathing the toxic air that has hovered over Ground Zero for months.
When Ellis returned to the store in Lower Manhattan on September 15 to prep it for reopening, the putrid smell of Ground Zero was unmistakable.
“It smelled like burnt plastic all the time,” she said. “But when you’re there, you get used to it. It’s like working in a fish market and getting used to the smell of fish.
Of the approximately 600 people who worked in the store when it reopened, at least 15 employees or sales associates now have 9/11 illness or cancer and have enrolled in the World Trade Center health program or the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund. , according to attorney Michael Barasch. Two others have died of 9/11-related cancers.
Twelve other Century 21 shoppers and 19 first responders who conducted recovery operations inside the store also requested compensation, Barasch said.
Employees like Ellis, who suffered from a rare skin cancer after working near the stack, are currently in the enrollment process.
It is not known how many former Century 21 employees fell ill or died from 9/11 illness.
The retail giant filed for bankruptcy and closed all 13 stores during the pandemic, although it was announced last year that the company would open physical stores again in the coming months.
Ellis and other employees have reached out to their former co-workers on social media, encouraging them to get tested for 9/11 illnesses, but it’s nearly impossible to reach everyone.
“People have died, but we don’t know whether or not they died of 9/11 illness,” Ellis said.
Marc Benitez, president of Century 21 stores, declined to comment.
Barasch said former Century 21 employees “represent a perfect storm among the forgotten victims of 9/11.”
“The store was a microcosm of the downtown neighborhood at the time,” Barasch said. “Yet so few have applied to the World Trade Center health program – less than 10 percent.”
Someone should create a list of employees who have worked at the store and encourage them to get evaluated, he said.
While more than 80% of first responders who rushed to Ground Zero signed up for compensation, less than 8% of the 300,000 office workers, retail workers, students, teachers and downtown residents who breathed the same air signed up, he said.
“Either they don’t want to do it, or they think they could take money away from the heroes, or they think it doesn’t apply to them, but it does,” Barasch said.