NEW YORK-- Within days of beginning treatment, Mike Wire noticed changes. His pain eased. His mood brightened. His sense of smell returned, sharper than ever.
A retired millwright from Bucks County, Wire, 60, is among thousands of rescue workers, firefighters and police officers who developed an array of serious ailments after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York. Wire spent 21/2 weeks at ground zero helping rig cranes to remove a precarious fallen girder.
Wire's symptoms -- shortness of breath, depression, aching joints, and feelings of doom -- surfaced later. And he found little relief until he began getting treated at the New York Rescue Workers Detoxification Project, a Manhattan clinic that follows a protocol pioneered by the late L. Ron Hubbard, controversial founder of the Church of Scientology.
The Scientology link spooked Wire a bit, frankly. But he and hundreds of 9/11 responders were desperate for help. What they got has left most of them amazed.
Set against these believers are skeptics who emphasize the need for an independent review of the center's detox regimen. They question whether the program's reported benefits are real or purely psychological. The harshest critics call the method quackery.
But many independent medical experts who have visited the center and talked to patients say they are impressed by the experiences of Wire and others. They are also mystified: This clinic seems to be doing something good that is helping heal those who came to the country's aid, but what it is, no one fully understands.
Dirty work in dirty places
Mike Wire is a big man -- 6-foot-6, 260 pounds. He had spent his career building and fixing industrial machinery. It was dirty work conducted in dirty places.
Last winter, Wire, who lives in Richboro, was feeling punk.
He had trouble breathing. He couldn't sleep. Bile was backing up in his throat -- acid reflux.
He went to see a pulmonary specialist. He went to see an allergist. Meanwhile, his symptoms were getting worse. His joints began aching; his mood turned sour.
"He became short-tempered and began snapping at the grandkids, which was really unlike him," says his wife, Joan. "He didn't have a whole lot of zest. He wasn't as lighthearted as he once was."
Wire was already somewhat depressed. He was still reeling from the death of his brother, Frank. A fellow millwright, Frank lived in Langhorne and was robust and physically active until acute myeloid leukemia was diagnosed in the fall of 2004.
He died, at age 62, in May 2005, leaving his wife, three sons and a grandchild.
It affected Mike deeply.
"It may be down the road for me," he remembers thinking. "Do I have to go through the same agony?"
A timely phone call
Then, in March, Wire got a call that changed his life.
On the phone was Jan Stewart, the wife of his cousin Bobby Stewart. She wanted to tell him about the unorthodox detox center in Manhattan that was achieving remarkable results helping 9/11 rescue workers who had symptoms just like Wire's.
Supported by actor and prominent Scientologist Tom Cruise, it opened in September 2002 and is housed on the fifth floor of a narrow office building on Fulton Street, a couple of blocks from ground zero. She urged him to look into it.
Bobby Stewart runs a North Jersey company called American Steel Erectors. On the night of Sept. 11, 2001, he was asked to supervise cleanup at a portion of ground zero and to bring in all the workers he could. His cousins Mike and Frank Wire were among them.
After the call from Jan Stewart, Wire realized that his ill health and his brother's may have been connected. Frank worked at ground zero for more than a month. Mike was there for 21/2 weeks.
Mike Wire worked to remove a 175-ton beam that had pierced the American Express building when the North Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed.
"I wanted to show the terrorists, 'You might have knocked us down, but we're not out,' " says Wire, a Korean War vet.
From his perch 26 stories high, he could look across the Hudson to Jersey City, where the sky seemed clear. But he knew appearances were deceiving.
Just how deceiving Wire began to discover this past spring. He learned on the Internet that one of the gases emitted by those smoldering ruins was benzene, a potent carcinogen and one of the leading causes of leukemia, which claimed his brother's life.
Hazardous dust storm
The collapse of the twin towers produced an unprecedented dust storm of hazardous substances. For weeks, the fires that burned in the debris sent all manner of poisonous gases into the atmosphere.
Since 9/11, thousands of rescue workers, firefighters, police officers and residents of the area have developed a persistent hacking cough and other ailments, such as asthma, chronic sinusitis and gastrointestinal distress.
According to a Mount Sinai Medical Center study released in September 2006, 70 percent of 9,500 ground-zero workers had a new or worsened respiratory condition. Post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression have also been commonly diagnosed. Other woes include rashes, joint pain, confusion, fatigue, dizziness, memory loss, decreased libido, insomnia and irritability.
A lawsuit representing nearly 8,000 rescue, recovery and cleanup workers has documented fatalities that plaintiffs say are attributable not only to respiratory illness but also to other ailments, including cancer.
Five hundred of the workers covered by the lawsuit against New York City have developed cancer, and more than a fifth of them have blood-cell cancers, such as leukemia and multiple myeloma, according to the plaintiffs' attorneys. At least 110 have died from cancer or heart or respiratory illnesses.
In a May interview with the New England Journal of Medicine, Robin Herbert, director of the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring Program, warned that ground-zero health problems seemed to be occurring in waves of escalating gravity: coughing and respiratory difficulty, then chronic asthma-like lung disease, and now cancer, especially cancers of the blood and lymphatic system, such as leukemia and lymphoma.
Herbert and her colleagues were seeing conditions like multiple myeloma in young people, something they had never observed before. "That's been a really unusual and troubling experience," she said in the interview.
Clinic doesn't proselytize
The Manhattan clinic offers its detox program free to all who were involved in the rescue effort and do not have medical issues, such as a heart condition, that would make participating unsafe.
It is also strictly nonreligious and engages in no proselytizing for the Church of Scientology. But it is affiliated with the Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education, a Los Angeles research and education nonprofit rooted in Scientology and backed by leading Scientologists.
The clinic's president is Jim Woodworth, 46, a Scientologist. Personable and enthusiastic, he has ties to FASE and moved to New York from Sacramento, Calif., where he had been involved with a similar detox program.
So far, 838 people have completed detoxification in New York, and in nine out of 10 cases, symptoms have disappeared or diminished substantially, Woodworth says.
A half-dozen people who reported similar dramatic improvements were interviewed by The Inquirer, as were several union leaders, who spoke enthusiastically about the program and said scores of their members had benefited from the treatment.
Several New York City Council members and union leaders have praised the clinic's work, and the clinic received a city grant of $330,000 to treat sanitation workers made ill by 9/11. So far, that's the only public money that has gone to the nonprofit project, Woodworth says.
While more than 400 members of New York's Fire Department have sought treatment at the clinic on their own -- on average it lasts 34 days and costs about $5,000 -- the department does not pay for the care. "It is not an approved medical-treatment program," department spokesman Tony Sclafani says.
The full cost of care is covered by the center's fund-raising efforts, with contributions coming from a wide range of supporters, including celebrities and Wall Street investment managers.
On the Internet, Mike Wire learned that the detox regimen was pioneered by Hubbard and involves exercise, body-cleansing through sessions in a sauna, high doses of the vitamin niacin, and other vitamin, mineral and oil supplements. Hubbard devised it to rid addicts of drug residues in their fat and blood.
Wire is by nature skeptical. Nevertheless, what he was learning was persuasive. Still, he wanted more proof. So in early April, he visited the clinic to see for himself.
He was astonished and comforted to learn that rescue workers, cops and firefighters who were there for treatment were experiencing the same cluster of ills afflicting him: acid reflux, shortness of breath, aches and pains in bones and muscles, depression, feelings of doom.
"There were guys in their 20s and 30s who were having these symptoms," Wire says. "It was not just me. It was not just about getting old. This was about 9/11. The common factor was ground zero."
Finally convinced, Wire signed up and, a week later, underwent a complete physical.
Then he changed into gym clothes and took a niacin pill, a basic dose of 100 milligrams. Niacin, or vitamin B3, is an essential component of the program. The basic principle of the Hubbard method is that poisons are stored in body fat. Niacin dilates blood vessels and capillaries and helps dislodge the contaminants, the theory goes, by stimulating the release of free fatty acids into the bloodstream.
Critics say that niacin doesn't work that way, and that high doses can imperil health, deepening the mystery of what role niacin, if any, plays in the apparent positive outcomes reported by many patients.
After taking the vitamin, Wire began walking briskly on a treadmill for about a half-hour to speed circulation, spread the niacin, and mobilize the exit of contaminants through sweat and urine.
Then Wire went into "the box." In the dry sauna, the temperature ranges from 140 to 180 degrees and induces profuse perspiration. He was given plenty to drink and monitored carefully. After a half-hour, he took a break and a shower. He snacked on peppers, carrots and cucumbers and replenished sodium, potassium and other minerals. Then it was back to the sauna. He repeated the cycle -- sauna/shower, sauna/shower -- for 21/2 hours, day after day.
The most persuasive case for the detox regimen is made by the patients, many of whom report dramatic improvement in their health.
Critics and skeptics are leery of these testimonials, what scientists call "anecdotal evidence." They attribute the tales of recovery to the power of suggestion, the placebo effect and psychological delusion.
"A lot of how you feel depends on belief and hope," says James Kenney, a registered dietitian with a doctorate in nutrition and a fellow of the American College of Nutrition. "You can't underestimate the power of suggestion and self-hypnosis in terms of mitigating people's symptoms, especially when it comes to vague psychosomatic problems such as depression and fatigue."
But doctors and experts with no link to the clinic who have visited and spoken to the patients are invariably impressed. The changes in appearance and health are too salient to be written off merely as wishful thinking, they say. Something remarkable appears to be happening, and it deserves thorough scientific scrutiny.
"I don't understand how or why this particular method works," says John Brick, a Yardley-based biological psychologist and expert on psychopharmacology who visited the clinic in July. "Whether it's from some mysterious combination of vitamins or just good diet and exercise, I can't say. But the bottom line is that it helped the patients I talked to."
The validity of the program should be verified by an independent, disinterested party, Brick adds. "As a scientist, I like to see data. To the best of my knowledge, no one has clearly demonstrated a causal relationship between the treatment and the outcome."
The mainstream medical establishment looks askance at the Hubbard detox program. Over the years, some doctors and scientists have denounced it as unsound and dangerous. Critics say the program is based on physiological fallacies and is unsubstantiated by science and credible studies.
In the 1980s, Bruce Roe, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Oklahoma, was asked to examine the rationale behind Narconon, a Scientology-linked drug-rehabilitation program that employs a similar detox protocol. After studying a stack of published material, Roe called the method "pure unadulterated cow pies."
It's "a scam," he said, based on "half-truths and pseudo-science" and "as medically valid as using copper bracelets to cure arthritis."
Keith Miller, president of FASE, the Los Angeles nonprofit that supports the Manhattan clinic, says his organization has long sought a partnership with other institutions to produce "an independent, university-based research study" of the detox program.
Indeed, one of the experts FASE approached is David Carpenter, a research physician whose professional focus is the effect of environmental contamination on human health.
After FASE contacted him, he twice applied for grants from the National Institutes of Health to evaluate the detox regimen, but was turned down both times. He is committed to trying again.
A professor of environmental health and toxicology, Carpenter is director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the State University of New York at Albany.
"I'm convinced the program has beneficial effects," he says. "The question from my perspective is: Are they mainly psychological, or is it really ridding the body of nasty chemicals?"
Medical science has yet to discover a way of removing contaminants from the body, especially fat-soluble contaminants stored in fatty tissue, Carpenter says.
"But before we get too excited, it must be demonstrated that it clearly does work through an objective, totally independent, rigorous analysis."
Asked to explain why the NIH has yet to fund any studies of the clinic and the Hubbard detox method, a spokesman says: "It is the science that drives NIH funding, and so we cannot discuss projects that were not funded. The privacy of applicants is protected in that way."
John Howard visited the Manhattan clinic in 2006, was also impressed by the "great testimonials," and believes the NIH should fund a formal study of what is happening.
Howard, a physician, is director of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health and coordinator of World Trade Center programs for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIOSH has been funding the screening, monitoring, and recently the treatment of those whose health has been damaged by 9/11.
"What I'd love to see are some controlled trials that would address the question: Does the treatment really work?" he says.
Commuting by train from his home in Bucks County, Wire underwent detox sessions at the clinic day after day, with no breaks. As time went on, the detox sessions grew to five hours, with more spells in the sauna. The dosage of niacin was steadily increased -- eventually to 5,000 milligrams, way above what conventional medical authorities deem safe.
"If it's as toxic as they say, I should be dead," says Wire.
In addition to niacin, Wire drank a concoction of lecithin and polyunsaturated oils (soy, walnut, peanut and safflower). According to the Hubbard protocol, this cocktail of cold-pressed oils keeps the mobilized contaminants from being reabsorbed by the intestines and helps usher them out of the body.
During his time at the clinic, Wire saw plenty of dramatic transformations. After finishing the program, many men were able to walk out with a bounce in their step for the first time in years, free of drugs and medications, he says. In a ritual, they left their inhalers on a shelf by the door, like crutches at Lourdes.
After 35 consecutive days of treatment, Wire was pronounced detoxified.
His shortness of breath, his acid reflux, his aches and pains, his gloomy outlook -- all gone.
"I feel great," Wire says. "I'm much healthier, more invigorated and involved in life."
Since then, he has felt no need to revisit the specialists who had treated him previously, nor has he sought further medical care.
He's looking forward to the future again, making plans to save a ranch in Burnt Fork, Wyo., once owned by his grandmother.
"He feels better. He looks better. His eyes are clearer. He's happier. I got my old Mick back," says Joan, using a pet name.
Wire wants to do more. He wants more people to know about the program. He wants businesses in the Philadelphia region to contribute money and supplies. He wants his union, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, to patronize the clinic.
"People don't realize that for people who are sick, 9/11 is not over," Wire says. "The government is doing what it has to, but this is the only group that is proactive, that is actually helping people get better.
"If I had known about it when my brother was sick, he might still be alive."
Online exclusive: Four others who were near ground zero talk about entering the program. Go to http://go.philly.com/detox
Contact staff writer Art Careyat 610-701-7623 or firstname.lastname@example.org