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Pulmonary fibrosis, latest illness tied toGround Zero exposure, can take decades to show itself


Like most first responders, former New York City detective Tom Frey is a master of understatement — even when it comes to talking about the World Trade Center terror attacks on 9/11, the most devastating assignment of his life.

"We were going down there, just trying to find anyone who was alive," he said of the hours and days that followed the collapse of the towering skyscrapers in Lower Manhattan. "We were digging in, moving concrete with our hands, basically just trying to find anyone, anybody who was alive. I was never lucky enough to find a survivor, but we did all we could." Instead, Frey found himself tending to the dead, and, later, sifting through debris brought to a Staten Island landfill looking for any trace of evidence that could shed light on the horrific attack. He searched for plane parts and human remains, all parts of a landscape rendered unrecognizable by pulverizing destruction and a pervasive layer of gray dust.

"On the job, I've seen plane crashes, people jumping out of windows, hanging themselves, subways derailed — all sorts of things. But you're never prepared for something like this," Frey says.

America would never be the same. Neither would Tom Frey.

Frey, who now lives in Florida, is one of many 9/11 first responders with serious illnesses brought on by exposure to the dust, smoke and chemicals of Ground Zero. A battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma, which his doctors tied to his 9/11 exposure, included multiple rounds of chemotherapy. That treatment led to a secondary diagnosis: pulmonary fibrosis, an incurable scarring of the lungs that can havemany causes and is one of the latest diseases to be correlated with Ground Zero exposure, according to a report published this year by the New York City Department of Health and the World Trade Center Health Registry.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Frey remembers looking up to see gray ash falling like a soft rain and realizing that he and other cops were wearing only paper masks: "I said, 'This is not going to be good down the road.' " When he was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis in 2016, his doctor told him "that the chemo drugs had started a fire in my lungs with some of the debris from the Trade Center, and he said there was nothing they could do for me."

Though Frey had long thought of himself as invincible — "I figured, hey, all those hot dogs I ate from the street vendors, I must be immune to everything," he jokes — he is part of the growing toll of victims of the 9/11 attacks. Three hundred forty-three New York City firefighters died during the initial response. In July, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the 200th NYC firefighter had died from a Ground Zero-related illness, a number that is expected to continue to climb and even exceed the original firefighter death toll.

Frey remembers a detective who sat at the desk next to his who was one of the first to succumb to a pulmonary illness. His friend and fellow NYC Detective Luis Alvarez, who supported Frey through his cancer treatments, made news in June when he gave emotional testimony before Congress in support of extending the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund. Alvarez died two weeks after his testimony.

In July, the victim fund was extended through 2090 — a necessary measure, says Dr. Greg Cosgrove, chief medical officer at the Chicago-based Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation, because illnesses such as pulmonary fibrosis will continue to be linked to Ground Zero exposure.

"The long-term consequences still haven't been clearly identified," Cosgrove says, "so to stop funding now is inappropriate because we will continue to see the progression of disease."

Pulmonary fibrosis is among diseases that can take decades to manifest themselves. "We're not even two decades past the event," Cosgrove says, "and people with asbestos exposure, for instance, don't begin to present until the third decade." Doctors still don't fully understand how pulmonary fibrosis works, Cosgrove says, because it is relatively rare and its causes are tough to track. Some cases have no known cause, and there are 180 other diseases that can cause pulmonary fibrosis in some patients.

In addition, the lung injuries that cause some cases can stem from a wide range of factors. Those can include seemingly innocuous things such as long-term exposure to pet birds or to wood dust from woodworking, or more obvious exposure to smoke, chemicals and debris from industrial sources.

The Ground Zero site was full of dust that contained heavy metals and asbestos, among other hazards. Over time, those irritants can produce scarring, or fibrosis, in the lungs, impeding their ability to breathe and absorb oxygen. The abnormal scarring response is irreversible, and the severity of its effect varies widely from person to person. Some people will never develop fibrosis, while others develop progressive scarring that continues to worsen over time.

Scooter companies crack down on underage riders after 9-year-old Omaha boy is injured

Scooter companies serving Omaha scrambled Wednesday to make it harder for people under age 18 to rent an electric scooter.

Spin and Lime agreed to require people renting scooters to verify their age using a driver’s license, as they do in some other cities.

The changes, which will be in place for both companies by Thursday, came after a 9-year-old boy was seriously injured this week on a Spin scooter on Florence Boulevard.

Both companies faced the possibility of losing access to the Omaha market over concerns about injuries to underage riders.

After Tuesday’s scooter crash, Councilwoman Aimee Melton asked the City Law Department to see if there was a legal way out of the city’s scooter agreement.

Melton said she hoped to talk to other council members and the mayor about possibly quitting the pilot program before its official end in November.

A final decision rests with Mayor Jean Stothert, who said she met Wednesday with the police chief, fire chief, city attorney, planning director and manager of parking and mobility about the scooter program. All agreed that they want the pilot to continue so the city can evaluate it, Stothert said.

At least two of the city’s most serious scooter-related injuries have involved riders younger than 18, the minimum age for renting scooters.

“With two underage children being injured on scooters, can we cancel the scooter pilot program now before someone gets killed?” Melton asked.

The 9-year-old boy remains hospitalized in serious condition after the collision with a city bus that was trying to pass him Tuesday on Florence Boulevard near Kountze Park.

Police and Spin representatives say they are still working to find out who rented the scooter or whether the child rented it himself.

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In a crash in May, a 16-year-old girl hurt her right ankle on a scooter near 31st and Farnam Streets. First responders sent her to the hospital.

Other kids have suffered bumps, bruises and broken bones in scooter crashes that didn’t require an ambulance call or police report.

Local hospitals reported that more than 65 people, adults and young people, have been injured riding scooters since the pilot program began in May, based on a World-Herald check.

The scooters have proven popular in Omaha. People took more than 148,000 scooter rides from May 13 to Aug. 20, with most of the rides covering less than a mile and lasting less than 10 minutes, based on city data.

The majority of rides were clustered around four parts of town — downtown, Midtown Crossing, Aksarben Village and Benson.

Electric scooters in Omaha are rented using smartphone apps from the individual scooter companies. Some are riding illegally.

At least a dozen of the 119 people issued citations or warnings by Omaha police were younger than 18 years old, according to police reports the newspaper requested and reviewed this month.

Council President Chris Jerram said he received an email Tuesday from a resident asking the city to end the pilot program.

“By continuing with this pilot, it is my fear that more children will be hurt,” Jen Bauer wrote. “The shine has worn off the new toy.”

Bauer, who is president of the Aksarben-Elmwood Park Neighborhood Association, said she was making the request as a private citizen.

Problems with young riders have cropped up in other cities. Some California cities, including Santa Monica, required the scooter-renting companies to incorporate bar code scanning of driver’s licenses.

Before the change in Omaha announced Wednesday, the Lime and Spin apps required local riders to confirm that they were at least 18 years old but allowed them to vouch for their own age.

The scooter apps will now check the age information on the license.

Spokespeople for Lime and Spin said their companies work to educate riders on the safe way to ride their scooters, and that includes being 18 or older.

Alex Youn of Lime said his company is pleased with how the Omaha pilot program is going and said that most people ride responsibly.

The company said riders under 18 are not allowed and that those who ride underage are banned from the platform.

Stothert said Wednesday that the city agreed to the pilot program to see whether the city’s infrastructure could handle the scooters and to gauge public interest.

She said the city will require the companies to do a better job of highlighting key local rules, including age restrictions and the prohibition on riding on sidewalks.

And city officials need to comb through the data the program provides to decide if the scooters should be allowed or banned.

“We don’t have a lot of experience with them,” Stothert said. “That’s why we’re doing the pilot.”

World-Herald staff writer Kevin Cole contributed to this report.

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Facing ethics inquiry, juvenile court judge retires; she says she's 'tired' of challenges, critics

After serving as a prosecutor in juvenile court for nine years, colleagues say, Elizabeth Crnkovich saw a juvenile court judgeship as a dream job.

She suddenly stepped down from that dream job in the past week after she was informed that she would be subjected to a judicial ethics inquiry spurred by a World-Herald article that revealed she had kicked three attorneys out of her courtroom, two courthouse sources said.

In a telephone call Wednesday afternoon, Crnkovich disputed that her retirement was sudden.

“It seems like a last-minute decision,” she said. “But it was something that I had been thinking about since I turned 65 in March.”

The two sources, who have worked for years in juvenile court and spoke on condition of anonymity, said Crnkovich’s hand was forced by an ethics investigation that began after The World-Herald reported that she kicked three attorneys out of a courtroom in March during a contentious child-custody case.

Citing that World-Herald story, State Sen. Ernie Chambers, who has a law degree and describes himself as the “garbageman of the judiciary,” sent a letter to the Nebraska Judicial Qualifications Commission.

An attorney for the commission then launched an initial, confidential investigation. Under state law, had the commission filed ethics charges, Crnkovich would not have been allowed to retire and receive a pension, “until the matter is resolved by the commission or the Supreme Court.”

The ethics charges against her were about to be formalized, the sources said.

Crnkovich’s response: “I don’t know who told you that. I was aware that Ernie Chambers was complaining. And honestly between 2016 and now, every effort to do the right thing has been more and more challenging. Frankly, I am tired.”

In her 25 years as a judge, Crnkovich was passionate about protecting children and had generally good rapport with juveniles and their parents. But she was also a lightning rod among attorneys and social service workers for what they saw as intemperate behavior.

Ten years ago, she had an attorney — an assistant public defender known for his mild-mannered nature — handcuffed and taken to a sixth-floor courthouse holding tank after he argued with her. The judge released him, within an hour, without a contempt citation.

Three years ago, she kicked a citizen’s watchdog group out of her courtroom.

And further reporting Wednesday revealed another exchange in recent months. Crnkovich had developed a program called “First Court” in which the judge, attorneys and social workers would meet off the record and without the juvenile or parents present to chart out how a case could play out. Crnkovich said the program was designed to strengthen and streamline the juvenile court process. It received positive reviews from members of a college group who studied it, she said.

But the off-the-record, outside-the-presence-of-the-parties nature of First Court led Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley to refuse to allow his attorneys to participate.

In one such First Court session, Judge Crnkovich and an attorney disagreed over her characterization of a parent in the case, according to multiple attorneys who were told of the exchange.

After the exchange, Crnkovich turned to a whiteboard in her courtroom and wrote in big letters that the attorney “thinks Judge C is a bitch.”

Shocked, the attorney asked the judge not to put words in his mouth.

When a reporter recounted that exchange to Crnkovich Wednesday, the judge laughed.

In those situations, she said, “We’re very casual. ... I don’t know if I wrote that on the board. Part of the process was to get to the heart of the matter and also to learn to trust each other. I was teasing him. ... It’s part of relieving the stress of very serious cases.”

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A few months after that exchange, Crnkovich booted three attorneys from her courtroom during the child-custody case. Although they had participated in the case before, she ruled that they didn’t have standing to participate in that particular hearing. The attorneys — Kristina Murphree, Karen Nelson and Mark Hanna — all asked to stay and watch from the gallery.

“You need to leave,” she said, according to those who observed the scene.

The ejection of the attorneys was remarkable for this reason: With extremely limited exceptions, all Nebraska court hearings — including juvenile hearings — are public. Murphree and Nelson, each of whom has at least 20 years of experience, were not found to be in contempt of court in any way. Nor was Hanna, the former prosecutor in the case.

At the time, Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine fumed.

“Everybody is aware that we don’t have secret hearings and secret trials in our country,” Kleine said then. “The Constitution says that we have public hearings and public trials.”

Chambers said he is relieved that Crnkovich stepped down but dismayed that she did so without consequence to her pension. By unofficial estimates, Crnkovich will receive an annual pension of about $118,000.

State lawmakers should shore up the loophole that allows judges like Crnkovich and former Nebraska Supreme Court Judge Max Kelch to retire before their charges are formalized, Chambers said.

“All they have to do to escape the consequences of their actions is to retire,” Chambers said. “They get full benefits. Their reputation is intact. This is something even the judges themselves should not want to see happen. It taints the very judiciary who claims it aspires to be open and transparent.”

In a 2018 survey of the state’s attorneys, Crnkovich was the second-lowest-rated judge among Douglas County juvenile, county and district judges. Sixty percent of attorneys said she should be retained. For perspective, the vast majority of judges receive retention ratings of 85% or higher.

Crnkovich was the lowest-rated judge in the state when it comes to attorneys’ views in one category: judicial temperament and demeanor. Attorneys rated her a 2 on a 5-point scale, where 1 stands for “very poor” and 5 means “excellent.”

2 Douglas County judges earn lowest scores in survey of Nebraska lawyers

Crnkovich’s retirement is the second in as many months. In August, Douglas County Juvenile Court Judge Doug Johnson stepped down after a long career. State court officials are expected to determine that the juvenile court caseload requires replacements and then begin taking applications from attorneys.

“I’m shocked,” said one longtime juvenile court attorney who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I know this isn’t the way she wanted it to end.”

Crnkovich insists that she has no regrets. She said she wants to be remembered for her concern about the children and families who appeared in front of her — “over 10,000 children, 15 to 25 cases a day.” She said she cherishes the notes she receives, sometimes years later, from kids and their parents. Just Wednesday, she said, she received flowers and well-wishes from an adult who appeared in her court as a child.

“I’d like to be judged by the people who I truly did judge — not those who have had their professional feelings hurt or don’t like the tone of a woman,” she said. “I don’t feel angry, but I do resist the implication that I should be ashamed of my career. I have served Douglas County well.”

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Catch a criminal on your doorbell's security camera? Local police departments want to partner up

In the heat of a foot pursuit last fall, La Vista police officers briefly lost sight of the man they were chasing. Fortunately, a resident’s home security camera was rolling.

During the chase, a 25-year-old man produced a handgun, which prompted an officer to fire multiple rounds at him. But those bullets missed their target, and the man took off, eventually forcing his way into a home, where he was subdued by the homeowner.

Officers later learned, after viewing private security footage, that the man had attempted to break into a different residence while on the run. He eventually was convicted of two counts of making terroristic threats and possession of a firearm by a prohibited person.

“We would never have known that if it wasn’t for one of the neighbors’ security cameras,” La Vista Police Chief Bob Lausten said in a recent interview.

The city is now one of at least two departments in the Omaha area using home security cameras to help investigate crimes.

Under La Vista’s Security Camera Registration Program, called SCRAM, residents and businesses with doorbell security cameras and other home surveillance systems can register their cameras with the department.

If a crime occurs in the vicinity of a registered camera, investigators can then easily contact the owner to request a copy of the tape.

“We’re trying to take ‘neighborhood watch’ and turn it into ‘neighborhood eyes,’ ” Lausten said of the program, which launched at the end of August.

Those interested in registering their cameras can do so on the La Vista Police Department’s website. Patrol officers have been handing out paper forms during the course of their shifts.

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In Omaha, video of suspicious activity can be shared with neighbors — and Omaha police — through a free smartphone app that police say already has helped solve crimes.

Ring, the video doorbell company, introduced its Neighbors app last year. The Omaha Police Department signed on to the program in July, said Omaha Police Capt. Steve Cerveny, who is in the department’s criminal investigations bureau.

La Vista, too, has a partnership with Ring that began in June. The Bellevue Police Department is in discussions to join the program, a department spokesman said.

App users don’t have to have Ring doorbells to take part in what’s essentially an online community bulletin board. People can post statements, photos and videos of suspected criminal activity in their neighborhood.

Police can monitor the posts, just as other users can, but officers wouldn’t investigate a property crime unless someone files a police report, Cerveny said.

If police are investigating a crime that occurred in a neighborhood, he said, they can reach out to residents who are on the app through Ring. “We can request any video that a system may have captured or a resident may have,” Cerveny said.

Whether people post the video or provide it to police is “totally voluntary,” Cerveny said. The app “doesn’t give us any ability to take over any video surveillance system.”

The app can give police an idea of areas with high concentrations of video surveillance systems.

“If a crime was committed,” Cerveny said, “we go canvass an area, look for witnesses to speak with, any other potential evidence. One of the things we look for is video cameras.”

The app, he said, “allows us to communicate with neighbors and communities within each precinct.”

The best thing about the videos posted to the app, Cerveny said, “is it puts that specific suspect at a specific place and at a certain time. It potentially allows a lot of individuals the ability to identify that suspect.”

App users set up boundaries around their home using an in-app map. If someone within the boundaries posts an alert, the app user will be notified on his or her phone or tablet.

Recent postings in an area from 42nd Street west to Interstate 680 and State Street south to Dodge Street showed videos of a car break-in, a photo of a truck that had been stolen, a video of “roaming dogs” and a report of a gunshot.

Omaha police detectives are starting to use the app more and more, Cerveny said. “We have received some responses to our requests for video (of crimes), but I think that will increase as time goes on.”

The app already has been very helpful in theft cases, Cerveny said, including thefts of mail, packages and vehicles.

“It’s a nice resource to have. It helps,” he said. “The most valuable part of it so far is the efficiency. It helps with the efficiency of an investigation” because officers don’t have to canvass such large areas.

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