Christine Todd Whitman, who as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under George W Bush at the time of the 9/11 attacks told the public the air around Ground Zero in New York was safe to breathe, has admitted for the first time she was wrong.
Among those who were exposed to toxins released when the World Trade Center collapsed, the toll of illness and death continues to rise.
Speaking to the Guardian for a report on the growing health crisis to be published on Sunday, the 15th anniversary of the attacks, Whitman made an unprecedented apology to those affected but denied she had ever lied about the air quality or known at the time it was dangerous.
“Whatever we got wrong, we should acknowledge and people should be helped,” she said, adding that she still “feels awful” about the tragedy and its aftermath.
“I’m very sorry that people are sick,” she said. “I’m very sorry that people are dying and if the EPA and I in any way contributed to that, I’m sorry. We did the very best we could at the time with the knowledge we had.”
She added: “Every time it comes around to the anniversary I cringe, because I know people will bring up my name, they blame me, they say that I lied and that people died because I lied, people have died because I made a mistake.”
In 2003, the EPA inspector general criticized the agency’s handling of the crisis, finding that the EPA had no basis for its swift pronouncements about air quality. Politicians, including the then New York senator Hillary Clinton, laid into the Bush administration, accusing it of deceiving the public.
More than 37,000 people registered with the World Trade Center Health Program (WTCHP), a federal organisation set up in 2011 to oversee those affected by exposure to the toxins released at Ground Zero, have been declared sick. Many have chronic respiratory illnesses or cancer.
More than 1,100 people covered by the WTCHP have died. That number includes first responders who were at Ground Zero and people who lived and worked in the surrounding area.
A WTCHP spokeswoman, Christy Spring, said: “We have a list of health conditions that the program provides medical monitoring and treatment for, established by the government to have been related to exposure to the dust and debris from the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.”
Whitman said: “If people are dying from this – and I have not seen the data – and they had believed everything was fine, then you have got to blame the message they were hearing, and what they were hearing was that the ambient air quality in Lower Manhattan at the time was OK.”
Jerrold Nadler, a veteran US congressman whose district covers the World Trade Center site, told the Guardian on Thursday that Whitman had never admitted she had been wrong about the air quality.
“She knew or should have known” the air was dangerous, he said.