Even now, 22 years later, the death toll from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, continues to climb. Even this long after the last embers were extinguished and the acrid smoke of three crash sites settled on now-sacred soil, the dying goes on. First responders continue to succumb to certain cancers and respiratory ailments connected to their heroism on that day and connected to their work in the weeks and months after the horror. Every one of these fresh victims, many falling after years of fierce battles with illness, leaves friends and family who also become victims of that deadly day, the day that hasn’t stopped killing.
On Aug. 4, retired FBI Special Agent Jack Hess passed away from cancer. Twenty-two years ago, Hess was supervisor at the FBI’s Washington field office. That day, he responded to the Pentagon, where American Airlines Flight 77 had plummeted from a cerulean sky and left a toxic hellscape of burning jet fuel, smoldering ruins and human remains. FBI Director Christopher Wray delivered remarks at Hess’ funeral to a gathering of family, friends and colleagues and correctly described Jack as a warm, caring leader.
Wray said of Jack: “Wherever he went, he left that place — and the people there — better than he found it. That adds up to something pretty profound. And I can’t think of a greater tribute to a life well-lived.” Wray noted that after the terrorist attacks, Jack “for the next eight years — the rest of his career — he served in critical roles helping determine how the FBI would reshape itself in response to 9/11.”
Thanks to people like Jack Hess, the FBI did transform for the better after 9/11, but 9/11 continues to shatter the lives of FBI families. At least 21 FBI employees have died from diseases linked to their exposure to hazardous conditions at the World Trade Center, Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, sites. One of those heroes worked for me. Special Agent Laurie Fournier was assigned to the FBI’s Cleveland field office and was part of its evidence response team. She was a joyful person who performed in the office rock band. She didn’t hesitate to deploy to the giant gash in the ground in Pennsylvania where United Airlines Flight 93 slammed to Earth.
Years after her death, Laurie’s cancer was linked to her work there, and her passing was deemed a line-of-duty death. That designation provided some benefits, but not much solace, for the husband and young children who were left to live without her.
In a 2019 video the FBI produced to increase awareness of the FBI 9/11 Responder Benefits Program, Jack says that after he responded to the Pentagon the day of the terrorist attack, he didn’t return to the site for years. About 17 years later, he says, “they found a tumor on my kidney.” He hadn’t registered for the benefits program, he said, because “it was 17 years ago. I’m fine. I was there for one day. I’m fine. In reality, those were bad assumptions. Seventeen years is right within the gestation period for the type of tumor I had.”
ABC News reported four years ago that 10 times as many New York police officers (241) had died of 9/11-related illnesses than the number (23) who were killed the day of the attack. The union for the Fire Department of New York lists on its website firefighters who died because of the attack on the World Trade Center and lists six deaths that occurred after my friend Jack died on Aug. 4. Ahead of last year’s 9/11 anniversary, union President Andrew Ansbro said he expected the number of firefighters dying of illnesses related to 9/11 to soon surpass the 343 personnel killed that day.
A similar phenomenon holds true for first responders at the other crash sites. A 2021 report from the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund said “more people are now believed to have died of 9/11-related illnesses than were lost on September 11, 2001.”
At the time of the attacks, the selflessness of our first responders was almost universally honored. Today, though, in large part because of the trouble former President Donald Trump finds himself in, FBI agents who’ve faithfully done their jobs find themselves under attack. An Ohio man was killed by police after he stormed an FBI field office in Cincinnati in apparent response to the FBI’s search of Trump’s Mar a Lago home. Utah man Craig Robertson was recently killed after he reportedly pointed a gun toward an FBI agent trying to arrest him for threatening to kill certain people he perceived to be enemies of Trump. On a social media account in May, Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., posted, “Defund and dismantle the FBI.” In July, the Heritage Foundation argued that the U.S. should “start FBI over from scratch.”
Some might view those pretend patriots who threatened FBI agents as martyrs for their misguided cause, but they’re no heroes. The real heroes include those FBI agents who responded to 9/11 and continue to lose their lives because of their genuine service to our nation. The heroes of 9/11 who are yet dying didn’t sacrifice their lives for a man or a political party. Their loyalty was to our nation, to all of us. And 22 years later, we still have reason to be grateful.