Patient No. 1, and a towel stained purple - 2007-10-05
Tom Bulger heard the sound of a jet flying low, gunning its engines. Odd, he thought. Then, suddenly, the crash of impact, a loud explosion.
He rushed to the roof of Stuyvesant High School, an elite school for some of New York City's smartest kids, about four blocks from the World Trade Center. Bulger is chief engineer at the school, responsible for keeping all its mechanical systems running. He cares for the place as if it's his home.
From the roof, he could see a gaping hole in the side of the North Tower, smoke and flames. And now falling from the wound, pieces of debris, except . . . except . . . could it be? . . . oh no! . . . Good Lord, they were bodies, burned and burning people leaping.
"It gave me a real sick feeling - 10, 12 people holding hands and jumping off. There's nothing more sickening than that," Bulger says.
Minutes later, he watched another plane smash into the side of the South Tower. He couldn't believe it.
"It was like some kind of disaster movie," he recalls.
Now he was on his walkie-talkie.
"We got problems."
It was the understatement of the day. The South Tower soon collapsed. Then the North Tower.
"All hell broke loose," Bulger says. "Fire trucks, police cars, ambulances everywhere. It was chaos."
Pulverized concrete covered the streets around the high school with eight inches of dust.
"It was like walking around on the moon," Bulger says. "I couldn't see. I couldn't breathe."
The evacuated school quickly became an emergency center. Bulger stuck to his post. Later in the day, when Seven World Trade Center tumbled to the ground, it knocked out an electric substation.
"That made things really intolerable," Bulger says. With no power, the lights went out, the elevators stopped. Bulger had to rev up the school's emergency diesel generator.
He worked around the clock, without sleep, for 72 hours, keeping the generator running and the building functioning, catering to the needs of the rescue workers who had turned the school into an ad hoc headquarters. For two weeks straight, he worked 15-hour days.
In early November, it all caught up with him. Bulger remembers clearly because it was the eve of his birthday.
"I was sicker than sick," Bulger says. "I was throwing up. I couldn't get out of bed and I couldn't stop sweating. I was coughing all the time and my eyes were killing me. I felt weak, like I had nothing left."
Bulger figured his body was exhausted from too much work and stress. But the symptoms - especially the coughing and fatigue -- persisted. He went to see a doctor. Diagnosis: bronchitis, an upper respiratory infection. Antibiotic pills were prescribed.
"I felt a little better," Bulger says, "but every night, no matter what, I was tired. Normally, I'm an energetic person. I'm up early in the morning. Now I would come home and just lay on the couch. I couldn't even walk the dog."
At night, he was unable to sleep for more than an hour or two. His body was a fountain of perspiration. "All night long, I was constantly pouring sweat," Bulger says. "The bed was soaked."
Bulger suffered this way for a year. Then one day in September 2002, some folks stopped by the high school. They said they had just opened a free medical clinic and they wanted to know if anybody there needed help.
"I was a little skeptical," Bulger says. "I'd heard of Scientology, but I didn't know nothing about it. I'm Catholic, and I'm thinking, this sounds like a bunch of bull-. Hey, I tell it like it is. I'm from Brooklyn, I don't pull no punches."
Bulger told the men he'd think about it. A week later, he decided to give it a try. He describes his reasoning: "I got nothing to lose. I'm sick now; the doctors aren't helping me. It's not going to cost me nothing. What the hell."
As it turned out, Bulger was Patient No. 1. By then, his skin color was ashen. "I didn't look white. I'm half Irish, half Italian, I got a reddish look in the face. I had, like, a gray look to me."
The first time in the sauna, he leaned back against the wall. Because the wall was uncomfortably hot, he put a towel behind his back. Twenty minutes later, when he left the sauna to shower, Jim Woodworth, of the detox clinic staff, noticed that the towel bore a purple imprint of Bulger's shoulder blades and back.
"I couldn't believe it. It can't be me," Bulger says. Even more amazing: The imprint on the towel was exactly where Bulger had experienced a terrible rash, which emerged about four weeks after 9/11 and lasted for months, despite all sorts of salves and medications.
Bulger continued to stain towels for several days. He also noticed something else coming from his body -- "a kerosene smell. I swear on my father's grave."
After a week of treatment, Bulger's cough subsided and he was breathing easier. He was also beginning to sleep through the night. After two weeks, he says, "I slept normal. I got the old pep back."
Bulger followed the program faithfully. "I did exactly what they told me. Vitamins, vegetables every day, no alcohol -- that was the hardest part, believe me." After 37 days, he was deemed detoxed.
Five years later, Bulger, 53, says going through the detox program was "one of the best decisions I ever made in my life."
"I feel tremendous," he says, "like I was before pretty much. It just amazes me."
He can't defend the science behind the detox program, Bulger says, but he can vouch for the results.
"It's a common-sense approach," he says. "If you got poison in you, the question is, how do you get it out? Doctors, they give you pills to relieve the symptoms, but the poison is still in there. As long as it's still there, you're not going to get better. I know they got the poison out of me; the towel proves it.
"As far as I'm concerned, the program works, and the more people who know about it the better."
In Jim Woodworth's office, the purple-stained towel of patient No. 1 - Tom Bulger's towel - is framed and hangs on the wall.