The death this month of yet another FBI employee who responded to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and a looming deadline for 9/11 responders to sign up for some health-related benefits is leading to renewed efforts inside the Bureau to make sure everyone who worked the expansive crime scenes in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania is plugged into the health resources available to them.
William “Homer” Lewis, an engineer and electronics technician at the FBI Academy, died April 3 after battling an illness attributed to his work at the Pentagon in the days and weeks after terrorists crashed an aircraft into the side of the building. Lewis, who joined the FBI in 1990, brings to at least 16 the number of FBI agents and professionals who have died from illnesses they incurred through work at or near the recovery and screening sites in lower Manhattan, the Pentagon, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
“Our folks responded without concerns for themselves,” FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich said during a recent event at FBI Headquarters—and broadcast to all 56 field offices—aimed at spreading awareness about the need for 9/11 responders to register for available health care resources before it’s too late.
“If you hear nothing else I have to say, please register today,” Bowdich said. “We’ve lost too many good people, and I feel we are going to lose more.”
The federal government has several programs for affected 9/11 responders, including the World Trade Center Health Program (WTCHP) and the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (VCF). The WTCHP, which authorizes coverage through 2090, provides ongoing screening, monitoring, and treatment for certified conditions, and the VCF provides compensation to individuals—or their families if deceased—for certain injuries or conditions or deaths related to the 9/11 attacks.
To learn about the World Trade Center Health Program, visit the WTCHP website or call (toll-free) 1-888-982-4748.
For additional information about the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund and how to file a claim, visit the VCF website or call (toll-free) 1-855-885-1555.
The FBI’s Human Resources Division can assist FBI employees with other resources, including filing with the health program and compensation fund. Email
The renewed urgency within the Bureau’s ranks is due in part by a looming statutory deadline to submit claims for the Victim Compensation Fund—December 18, 2020. The urgency was compounded earlier this year when the special master in charge of the $7.3 billion compensation fund announced that future payouts would be significantly reduced (by up to 70 percent) because of dwindling funds. More than $5.1 billion has already been awarded to more than 21,000 claimants as of March 31, 2019, with thousands more claims still pending review.
“I am painfully aware of the inequity of the situation,” VCF Special Master Rupa Bhattacharyya wrote in a February 15, 2019 message posted on the VCF website. “I also deeply regret that I could not honor my intention to spare any claim submitted prior to this announcement from any reductions made due to a determination of funding insufficiency. But the stark reality of the data leaves me no choice.”
With at least three deaths last year of FBI special agents whose illnesses were directly related to their work at 9/11 sites and more than 40 FBI employees currently being treated for 9/11-related illnesses, a concerted effort is underway to get all 9/11 responders—working and retired—to register for the programs even if they are not showing any signs of illness.
“We’re trying to make sure people are at least registering for a potential claim, whether they are sick or not,” said Jean O’Connor, a 9/11 responder and special agent in the Washington Field Office who is part of a cadre of FBI staffers leading the awareness campaign. They are encouraging all 9/11 responders—at the FBI and elsewhere, to include task force officers, police officers, and firefighters—to get registered so that if there is a need down the road they have already established their eligibility. “The Victim Compensation Fund only kicks in when you make a claim, but the registration is just saying, ‘I was a first responder,’ ” and gets the VCF to acknowledge that you were.”
Current and former FBI special agents describe their roles during the FBI’s response to the 9/11 attacks and encourage other 9/11 responders to register for the health benefit and compensation programs available to them.
Jack Hess, an FBI agent for 21 years before retiring in 2009, worked briefly at the Pentagon recovery site before moving off-site to a command center. Earlier this year, his doctors removed a cancerous tumor that doctors attributed to his work in 2001. Hess thought so much time had passed and that he was in the clear, so he hadn't registered for benefits, even as his former colleagues suggested he should.
“Frankly, my perspective was, ‘It was 17 years ago, I’m fine, I was there for one day, I’m fine,’ ” said Hess, whose prognosis is good. “In reality, those were bad assumptions. Seventeen years is right within the gestation period for the type of tumor that I had. And after extensive research, they’ve determined that four hours’ exposure to the carcinogens in the air that day was plenty to get sick.”
On September 7, 2018, FBI Director Christopher Wray and the VCF special master hosted a forum in New York for nearly 200 law enforcement officers about the programs available for 9/11 responders. In the six months prior, Wray had attended three memorial services for agents who died from illnesses related to their work at 9/11 sites.
“We are only now beginning to understand and witness the long-term effects of that work and the full extent of the sacrifices all of our first responders made,” Wray said at the time.
Some estimates put the number of FBI responders to 9/11 sites at 4,000 employees, with only a fraction having registered with the WTCHP or the VCF. The FBI group leading the awareness campaign, in coordination with the Bureau’s Human Resources Division, said reasons vary for colleagues’ reluctance to sign up for the programs—from feeling healthy and therefore unaffected to fearing that by registering they would shrink the pool of funds available to someone else who may need them more.
“This is not a matter of taking resources from another person,” said Special Agent John Nagashima, who spent weeks at the Pentagon site collecting and sifting for potential evidence. He’s healthy, but registered after seeing several of his colleagues fall ill or die. “It’s just trying to detect these things early enough so you can get appropriate treatment.”
Director Wray said as much last fall, encouraging all those who worked so selflessly in the wake of 9/11 to take this opportunity to look after themselves.
“There are resources that may be available to you,” Wray said. “You fought to make sure that what happened that day would never ever happen again. So let us help you now.”
Inside the FBI: First Responders and 9/11-Related Illnesses
FBI Wall of Honor: 9/11-Related Deaths
At least 16 FBI agents and professionals have died thus far from illnesses they incurred through work at or near 9/11 crash sites. Ten have officially been added to the FBI's Wall of Honor, with more names to be added in the months and years to come.
- World Trade Center Health Program (WTCHP)
Help line: 1-888-982-4748
- September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (VCF)
Help line: 1-855-885-1555
- FBI Human Resources Division
- Bureau of Justice Assistance Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program (PSOB)
Help line: 1-888-744-6513