Inside the FBI: First Responders and 9/11-Related Illnesses, Part 2 | Victims’ Voices

September 28, 2018

The widow of an FBI agent who died from a 9/11-related illness shares her story and urges other 9/11 first responders to register for federal programs established to provide free medical monitoring, treatment, and compensation.

Audio Transcript

This podcast includes sounds from the September 11, 2001 terror attack. Listener discretion is advised.

Mollie Halpern: On September 11, 2001 Americans on the Eastern Seaboard awakened to a morning like any other.

FBI Special Agent Robert Roth traveled to work in Quantico, Virginia, where he would begin his quarterly firearm testing.

(Sounds of gunfire)

Unbeknownst to him and most of the world, 19 al Qaeda terrorists had penetrated security at several of the country’s airports with the intent to use planes as weapons in attacks against America.

In an instant, September 11 was no longer any other day.

At 8:46 a.m., hijacked American Flight 11 crashed into floors 93 through 99 of the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. All 92 on board and an unknown number in the building were killed on impact.

(Sounds of people screaming)

United Flight 175 crashed into floors 77 through 85 of the south tower at approximately 9:03 a.m.

Melissa was on the 83rd floor. Her final moments were recorded during a conversation with a dispatcher.

Melissa: I’m going to die, aren’t I?

Dispatcher: No, no, no, no, no, no.

Melissa: I’m going to die.

Dispatcher: Ma’am, ma’am, ma’am. Say your prayers. You gotta think positive cause you gotta help each other get off the floor.

Melissa: I’m going to die, I know.

Dispatcher: Now look, stay calm. Stay calm. Stay calm. Stay calm.

Melissa: Please, God!

Dispatcher: You’re doing a good job ma’am, you’re doing a good job.

Melissa: Oh. It’s so hot. I’m burning up!

Halpern: Many of the victims’ voices were recorded. Some of the calls ended in the middle of those conversations.

Kevin’s last telephone call was one of them.

Kevin: Lady, there’s two of us in this office. We’re not ready to die, but it’s getting bad.

Dispatcher: I understand sir. We’re—they’re trying to get all of the apparatus there. I am trying to let them know where you are.

Halpern: At 9:37 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77, a Boeing 757, dove into the Pentagon, obliterating three of the building’s five rings. A fireball ascended 200 feet above the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense.

(Sounds of sirens)

Sixty-four people on board were killed, along with 125 civilian and military personnel inside the Pentagon. The youngest was only 3 years old.

About 30 miles away in Quantico, Agent Roth received a call alerting him to the incident. He immediately responded to the scene, where fumes from jet fuel and smoldering debris filled the environment.

Around the same time, terrorists, wearing red bandanas around their foreheads, had gained control of a fourth airliner—United Airlines Flight 93.

Passengers and crew began calling their loved ones with the plane’s Airfones.

CeeCee, a flight attendant, left her husband a voicemail.

(Voicemail audio: Tuesday, 9:47 a.m.)

CeeCee: Hi, baby. I’m—baby, you have to listen to me carefully. I’m on a plane that’s been hijacked. I’m on the plane. I’m calling from the plane. I wanna to tell you I love you. Please tell my children that I love them very much. And I’m so sorry babe. Um, I don’t know what to say. There’s three guys, they’ve hijacked the plane. I’m trying to be calm. We’re turned around and I’ve heard that there’s planes that’s been, been blown into the World Trade Center. I hope to be able to see your face again, baby. I love you. Bye.

Halpern: The passengers and crew tried to overpower the terrorists, but at 10:03 a.m., the Boeing 757 crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania at 563 miles per hour.

By the afternoon of September 11, 2001, nearly 3,000 people—including many first responders—had been murdered. Among them, FBI Special Agent Leonard Hatton and retired Special Agent in Charge John O’Neill.

America had forever changed.

Halpern: You’re listening to Inside the FBI, and I’m Mollie Halpern of the Bureau.

9/11 first responders, like Agent Bob Roth, survived the dangerous rescue and clean up of the attacks only years later to succumb to illnesses linked to toxic exposure at the related sites.

Ahead in this episode: Hear Bob express his thoughts and feelings in the last recording of his voice; a life-saving message from his widow, Tresa; and how the FBI honors the sacrifices of Bob and all FBI employees who die as a direct result of adversarial action or in the performance of their duties.

Halpern: Seventeen years after the largest terror attack on American soil, I’m driving on the Virginia street where Bob Roth used to live. Even without checking the address, I have a good guess which house his widow, Tresa, and their five children call home. It must be the one with red, white, and blue flags draping from porch railings, popping out of potted plants, and waving from the front of the house.

It reminded me of the days, weeks, and months after the 9/11 terror attacks, when an abundance of American flags were displayed across the county as a symbol of unity and resilience in the face of terrorism—and in honor of those who perished.

Those who live inside this flag-decorated house continue to feel pain from the terror attacks.

Once inside, Tresa tells me how her love story with Bob began. This September marks two events: what would have been the couple’s 30th anniversary, and the attacks on America.

On 9/11, Bob assisted military members with moving the injured, safeguarding debris, and crowd control. The next day, he spent time attempting to recover bodies from the blowout area of the Pentagon—that’s the section of the building that absorbed Flight 77’s jet-fuel-powered explosion. He also supervised the Evidence Response Teams as they painstakingly recovered human remains and personal effects and cleared debris inside the Pentagon. Bob worked 12-hour days for nearly three weeks at the building.

Tresa recalls the toll it took on her husband …

Tresa Roth: Some days he would come home so tired that there was little talking going on at all. He just really wanted to shower and go to bed. Other days he would come home and I would be in bed, and we would wake up and talk about it, and I remember him telling me about different things he would find. A thumb that belonged to a girl that was about the ages of one of our girls, and how much that bothered him to think about somebody having to hear the words that it was your daughter. And as we talked about that, it was a grave moment to just think that it could have been somebody in our position.

Halpern: Responding FBI agents and other FBI employees wore minimal to no personal protective gear on the day of the attacks. It was not on their minds. What was—hurrying to help others. Responding FBI employees did wear gear after the first day but it didn’t seem to matter.

Roth: He talked about the smell and metallic taste in the back of his throat, the burning down the back of his nose. He felt like his face was always in a snarl because it was this constant stench in his nose. I remember the exhaustion.

Halpern: Despite the emotionally draining days, Bob described his career as an FBI agent as a “delight of his heart”—one that provided him with camaraderie while pursuing a noble mission.

Roth: I supported him in his work. We were working together for a common cause. So I like to think that when the Bureau hired him, they got a two-for-one deal, because he wouldn't have been able to put the effort in if he didn't have the support at home, to have the peace that his family was all right while he was working.

Halpern: In August of 2006, Bob was exercising with his children when …

Roth: Bob was limping, and I said, "What happened?" And our conversation out in the street was, "I hurt my hip flexor. It's not a big deal." And as an athlete will often have an injury, he came inside and took some Motrin and iced it, and we just didn't think anything else of it.

Halpern: They were forced to think about it when the pain didn’t subside. So Bob scheduled an MRI.

Roth: They pulled him off the MRI machine and put him in a wheelchair and they said, "You're hip ball is gone, and we're afraid your femur is going to go through your femoral artery." And he sat there in his gym clothes thinking, "I just came from the gym lifting, and this could have happened at the gym."

Halpern: Doctors diagnosed Bob with plasmacytoma, and within a week, Bob had his hip replaced. Doctors said they removed all of the cancer.

Roth: And we left the hospital kind of doing a victory dance, thinking, "Wow, this was seemingly devastating, and we caught it in time," and we were pretty happy about it

Halpern: But then another doctor told them she wanted to bring Bob back in for a bone marrow biopsy. The results showed that Bob was in an advanced stage of multiple myeloma.

Tresa and Bob were devastated—and puzzled. Bob had always lived a clean, healthy lifestyle.

Roth: As we sat with doctors—mulling through the course of Bob's life, his parents' lives, where he lived, things that he'd done—nothing flared up in the eyes of the doctors of that being a probable contributor to this kind of cancer. Multiple myeloma is typically a geriatric cancer, so for a seemingly healthy young man to get it in his early 40s was a little bewildering to the doctors. And the minute that Bob said that he was a first responder at the Pentagon, they started nodding their heads and, "There you go." They seemed to have no doubt in their mind that there was the connection.

Halpern: The whirlwind of finding the right oncologist and treatment plan began. One doctor said …

Roth: "Of the type that you have, the typical life expectancy is 18 months, but yours won't be that long." She couldn't give us a time frame of how long that would be, so as we sat there listening to an 18-month or less life expectancy, Bob had taken a picture of our family, and he showed her our five kids, ages 1 to 12 at the time, and said, "This isn't good enough." And she said, "That's all I can offer you."

Halpern: Determined to not lose hope, the couple located an institute with an excellent reputation for treating multiple myeloma. There, Bob received two rounds of the TT2 protocol treatment and two bone marrow transplants. Afterward, he went into a technical state of remission.

But it only lasted two months. Bob developed new symptoms. He had 143 bone lesions and couldn’t stand. He underwent an experimental treatment that reduced the lesions to nine, but left him in a weakened condition.

Tresa and I were sitting across from each other in her living room—the very same place she and Bob made the decision that he would not suffer through a fourth bone marrow transplant.

And the same place where a close friend recorded Bob’s last words. Listen to some excerpts.

Bob Roth: I had a great life. I’ve got a fantastic wife. I’ve got great kids who bless my life every day. At the very end, I am disappointed. What I have been through health-wise is a disgusting process. But through that, I have received great blessings. And that reinforces my trust of God’s plan. I would prefer to stay around and raise my kids. God has other things that he apparently has planned and wants to handle, and that’s just His prerogative—it is not my prerogative—and I’m okay with that.

Halpern: A few weeks after the recordings, from his hospice bed, Bob said his goodbyes to Tresa and his children. He died on March 16, 2008.

Halpern: Tresa and I pause our conversation. Her young son joins us, and we start making lunch.

(Sounds of food preparation)

Halpern: We enjoy each other’s company, and the food.

It’s almost as if we hadn’t spent the morning reflecting about some of the darkest days in America’s history and the profound loss her family endures to this day. Almost.

Roth: There is a ripple effect of loss that never ends. The ripple effect of the kids going to weddings and seeing a father-daughter dance, or a girl being given away by her dad—those are difficult times. For a boy who's playing his first football games and wishing that, "It would have been nice if my dad were here." Anytime there's a parent night and I'm there, there's a void. The kids are doing, I think, really well with where they're at, but the void is still there, and the ripple will continue the rest of their lives.

But there's also a ripple effect with our friends. Because we have many friends who are agents, who did work on 9/11, who do have exposures, and they are still wondering about their health. It's a ripple effect of fear that people have in the back of their mind.

Halpern: Tresa wants her painful experience to encourage other 9/11 first responders and volunteers to register for federal programs established to provide free medical monitoring, treatment, and compensation.

Bob was the first agent the FBI became aware of whose illness and death was a result of his exposure to carcinogens during his work as a 9/11 first responder. At the time, medical benefits were only available to those who responded to the World Trade Center—not the Pentagon or Shanksville sites—and none covered cancer diagnoses.

Since then, programs have expanded coverage, and one has been reauthorized to operate. One of those programs, administered by the U.S. Department of Justice, is the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. Another is the World Trade Center Health Program, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention administers.

Roth: I would say, get yourself registered. There's no excuse. It doesn't take that much time. And get yourself to the doctor every year. Be aware of your body, even the littlest things.

Halpern: Tresa also recognizes that while federal programs help those who made sacrifices on 9/11 and afterward, a void exists for survivors. It’s one she and other 9/11 widows want to fill with a support group in the form of a foundation for the FBI family and other federal employees.

Roth: We could offer support to the families in ways of mentoring to their children, to them, how to get through it, how to work through the funeral, the paperwork, so many issues with the kids, and just to be able to offer a hand or a shoulder for them.

Halpern: It’s support that more families may need. Many FBI employees are currently being treated for 9/11-related medical conditions.

Fifteen FBI agents have died from 9/11-related illnesses—three of them so far this year.

Ten of these agents, including Bob, are on the FBI’s Wall of Honor—the Bureau’s way of paying tribute to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty.

The names of the remaining five will soon be under review for consideration to be added.

Legacies—like Bob’s—kept alive through survivors, loved ones, and the FBI family.  

Bob Roth: I’ve had just a great life, and I’m not unsatisfied in that way at all. And it doesn’t make me sad to be under this great threat. The first thing that people should know is, I’m okay. I’m okay with where I am. I think that that’s something that God gives you when you’re in your most difficult circumstances.

Halpern: On the next edition of Inside the FBI: An FBI first responder diagnosed with 9/11-related cancers shares her story, and hear what her oncologist has to say. Thank you for listening.

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