After retiring in September as an in-office technician for Verizon, Anita Long wanted to buy a home in the southwest Bronx neighborhood she has lived in for 28 years, on the Grand Concourse just east of Highbridge and south of Mt. Eden.
It is where the 65-year-old Bronxite has advocated for housing rights through Community Action for Safe Apartments, served on Councilmember Althea Stevens’ senior advisory council and sat on Community Board 4.
But a Legionnaires’ outbreak let loose there in May, infecting 30 people, killing two and hospitalizing 28, including Long. The airborne disease, which was spread from legionella bacteria emanating from a cooling tower at 1325 Jerome Ave., upended Long’s desire to stay in the neighborhood.
After laying in the hospital for 22 days and facing an onslaught of health issues, Long decided she doesn’t want anything to do with New York.
“I love my community and I love being a voice of the people, especially people who do not have a voice … so I wanted to stay in the community,” she said in an interview, first with the Bronx Times. “But because of what happened to me, now I am afraid. I almost feel like I’m a hostage within my apartment because I’m afraid to go out.”
Long is one of three Bronxites suing the Doe Fund and represented by the Texas-based Lange Law Firm, which specializes in Legionnaires’ cases across the country. The Doe Fund nonprofit owns and operates an affordable and supportive housing development at the site of the cooling tower identified by the city health department as the source of the outbreak.
The newly built development, which opened in July 2021 and also houses the Zeta Mt. Eden early childhood charter school, was charged by the city health department on May 25 with three cooling tower maintenance law violations, each carrying $500 penalties each, according to city records.
Doe Fund spokesperson Elizabeth Lion, who previously wrote in an email to the Bronx Times that the organization “followed ALL cooling tower maintenance laws” did not respond to requests for comment on the summonses issued by the city nor the lawsuit.
Long, who is now afraid of even going to her local corner store out of fear of catching the disease again and dying, said the cooling tower is near the garage she keeps her car in, the pharmacy she gets her medicine from and the subway station she uses. It’s in her regular path.
“I didn’t ask for none of this,” she said. “This is unfair. Just because I left my house to do the normal things that I normally do.”
Long said developers should show compassion for the communities they build in, pointing out how the Doe Fund site that caused the outbreak is still new to the neighborhood.
“There should be a better handle on this,” she said. “I think the building owners should know and be responsible to the community that they chose to be in. That building — you didn’t have to build there. You chose to build there, so you should care about the people within your building and outside of your building. And you should be concerned about their safety and every building that has a cooling tower should be concerned about it.”
Building owners with cooling towers should know about the laws, as Legionnaires’ is nothing new to the south Bronx, Long said, pointing to the deadly 2015 outbreak that prompted the city and state’s cooling tower regulations.
“They should have known about this. This is nothing new that has happened within the community,” Long said.
On top of it all, the local coop that Long was preparing to buy into, The Executive Towers Full Service Luxury Coop at 1020 Grand Concourse, was the site of one of four cooling towers investigated as part of the outbreak.
Dealing with illness
Long now wants to settle down in Connecticut, where she went on May 9 to watch her grandchildren before knowing she caught the disease. But when she got out of the car, her daughter told her she didn’t look well. And she didn’t feel well either.
Staying at her daughter’s home, Long unexpectedly fell when she went to get water from the refrigerator that night. She tried getting up and couldn’t. She felt like she couldn’t talk or scream for help. With carpet burn on her forehead and knees, Long remembers falling in and out of sleep, unable to move or function, undiscovered until her daughter checked in on her in the morning.
First Long thought she had food poisoning, and then maybe a stroke. But after two days at Bridgeport Hospital, she learned she had Legionnaires’ Disease, she said.
“My coordination was totally off,” she said. “My speech was totally off. I could not sit up on my own. I could not even stand or walk. I had to learn all of this all over again.”
Long also had trouble breathing; her kidneys shut down, her temperature was high, her skin was turning blue and she lost her strength. She couldn’t hold a fork on her own, and felt humiliated.
Once an avid walker, Long can now barely walk three blocks without needing to rest, she said. Before getting Legionnaires’, she walked to her mother’s home on 113th Street in Manhattan to regularly accompany her on errands.
She was heartbroken to pass the responsibility of caring for her mother onto another family member, now that she needs care herself.
“I feel like I’m still out there to be harmed,” said Long, who now has to see a lung specialist, kidney specialist and cardiologist.
Long’s attorney Jory Lange said in an interview with the Bronx Times that passersby can’t do anything to protect themselves from cooling towers that aren’t properly maintained, calling Legionnaires’ a “silent killer.”
Khalid Fritz, who was hospitalized at Lincoln Hospital for several weeks, is suing the Doe Fund in conjunction with Long, and Lange is also representing Harold Hargrave, who was hospitalized at Lenox Hill Hospital from May 11 to May 24, according to the lawsuit. Both Bronxites live within half a mile of the Jerome Avenue tower, according to the suits.
“We see these as very big, very serious cases,” said Lange. “Especially because this was completely preventable through really simple maintenance steps to keep Anita or anyone else from getting hurt.”
Reach Aliya Schneider at [email protected] or (718) 260-4597. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes