BY CELESTE KATZ
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
Rudy Giuliani drew outrage and indignation from Sept. 11 first-responders yesterday by saying he spent as much time - or more - exposed to the site's dangers as workers who dug through the debris for the missing and the dead.
Speaking to reporters at a Cincinnati Reds ballgame he caught between fund-raisers, the GOP front-runner said he helped 9/11 families and defended himself against critics of how he managed the attack's aftermath.
"This is not a mayor or a governor or a President who's sitting in an ivory tower," Giuliani said. "I was at Ground Zero as often, if not more, than most of the workers. I was there working with them. I was exposed to exactly the same things they were exposed to. So in that sense, I'm one of them."
His statement rang false to Queens paramedic Marvin Bethea, who said he suffered a stroke, posttraumatic stress disorder and breathing problems after responding to the attacks.
"I personally find that very, very insulting," he said.
"Standing there doing a photo-op and telling the men, 'You're doing a good job,' I don't consider that to be working," said Bethea, 47.
Ironworker Jonathan Sferazo, 52, who said he spent a month at the site and is now disabled, runs a worker advocacy group with Bethea and called Giuliani's comments "severely" out of line.
"He's not one of us. He never has been and he never will be. He never served in a capacity where he was a responder," Sferazo said.
In the aftermath of the attacks, admirers dubbed Giuliani "America's Mayor," praising his leadership in the face of an unprecedented disaster. Detractors, including the International Association of Fire Fighters, which put out a scathing 13-minute video on his performance, suggested he profited politically and financially from the attacks.
"[Giuliani] is self-absorbed, arrogant and deluded," said IAFF spokesman Jeff Zack.
Responded Giuliani spokesman Michael McKeon, "Americans saw Rudy's performance for themselves during the aftermath of 9/11 and will dismiss this as the ridiculous and partisan rantings of a Democratic front group, because that's what they are."
Giuliani backer Lee Ielpi, a retired firefighter who lost his son, said no one's saying Giuliani dug through the rubble personally, but that doesn't mean he wasn't exposed to toxins.
"For me to say I saw him every day [would] not be fair," said Ielpi, who participated in the recovery effort for nine months. "But I can say I did see the mayor there a large number of times, [trying] to be as helpful and supportive as possible."
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