Any mention of the devastating terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 instantly brings to mind the loss of 2,996 victims in lower Manhattan, at the Pentagon, and in a grassy field outside Shanksville, PA. However, it is equally important to bear in mind that the number of deaths attributable to that terrible day in U.S. history continues to climb due to an increase in 9/11-related illnesses among that day’s first responders.
This fact has tragically been driven home once again by the untimely death of a young NYPD officer who did not hesitate to jump into the action nearly 17 years ago. Kelly Korchak was just 38 years old when she died in June of 9/11-related cancer, mere months after giving birth to her only son, Luke.
Devastating diagnosis, selfless perseverance
In October 2016, Korchak, a resident of Eltingville, NY, returned home after a day of work to find severe swelling on one of her legs. Subsequent medical testing revealed a pair of blood clots, one of which had already burst.
A chest x-ray taken at that time revealed something far more profound: spots all over her lungs that were indicative of primary peritoneal cancer.
What made this diagnosis especially catastrophic was the fact that Korchak was in her third trimester of pregnancy at the time. In order to allow the baby’s lungs more time to develop, the mother-to-be declined an early delivery, ultimately undergoing chemotherapy after his birth.
Korchak died on June 10 of the cancer, which is believed to be traceable to her work in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Commitment to service led to police career
Though she had long dreamed of becoming a teacher, difficulty finding full-time work in the education field led Korchak to register for the police examination. According to her mother, law enforcement work turned out to be her true calling after all.
“She took to it and she had good instincts,” her mother said. “She was good at reading people. She was meant to be a cop.”
Eventually serving 16 years on the job, Korchak developed a reputation for having particularly keen instincts and abilities, receiving the “Cop of the Month” award on multiple occasions. She was credited with a key role in halting a burglary ring in 2012 that targeted victims of Asian descent.
Two weeks at Ground Zero
Korchak was attending the police academy when terrorist attackers crashed two airplanes into the World Trade Center towers. She was assigned to work onsite at Ground Zero for two weeks, assisting with traffic duty and helping utility workers get where they needed to go.
A diagnosis of primary peritoneal cancer is considered quite rare, and many suspect that Korchak’s was directly linked to the type of occupational exposure she received in the two weeks following Sept. 11. Prior to learning that she had the ultimately fatal disease, Korchak showed no symptoms of the illness, though her condition rapidly deteriorated in the months thereafter.
Ongoing health concerns continue to plague 9/11 heroes
This young mother’s tragic story underscores the plight suffered by legions of forgotten victims of the 2001 terrorist attacks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s World Trade Center Health Program reports having registered well over 5,400 people with diagnoses of 9/11-related cancers, a number which is likely to be higher given that the CDC’s statistics only include those who have chosen to self-enroll.
Researchers have found that firefighters, rescue workers, police offers, and others who spent time at the World Trade Center site following 9/11 have a significantly elevated risk of developing certain types of cancers, particularly multiple myeloma. This is due to the aerosolized dust, toxic fumes, jet fuel, pulverized glass fibers, asbestos, diesel fuel combustion byproducts, and other carcinogens that many were exposed to.
Though the passage of time may serve to dull our memories of the deadliest attack ever launched on American soil, it is crucial that we don’t forget the suffering of those who continue to be affected by the tragedy. Korchak, and other heroes like her, will certainly be missed.