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Alabama 9/11 responders share message about World Trade Center Health Program

Published: Sep. 9, 2021 at 6:44 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 9, 2021 at 10:53 PM CDT
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GADSDEN, Ala. (WBRC) – There was still smoke coming from the collapsed World Trade Center when Investigator Stephen Hooks arrived in New York on September 28, 2001.

“It was emotional, the TV, the pictures, it don’t do it justice. The pile was still there, it was still smoking, the smell was still there,” said Hooks, looking at a photo he snapped of Ground Zero nearly 20 years ago.

Hooks joined several officers from the Etowah County Sheriff’s Office and spent a week in New York City, helping with everything from rescue and recovery to covering patrol shifts for NYPD officers.

“We worked Ground Zero, we did the Staten Island landfill, we was at the temporary morgue, a lot of work south of Canal Street,” said Hooks.

They spent all their time in an area classified by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the New York City Disaster Area. The federal government considered the area so toxic that people working there from the attacks through July 31, 2002 are considered at-risk for developing health problems.

Six months after working at the Pentagon blast site, Susan Spiker’s husband, Todd, an FBI Special Agent deployed with the Atlanta Evidence Response Team, was diagnosed with Stage 4 Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

“No one knew 6 months after 9/11 that it was going to be that the toxins would cause so many problems later on,” said Spiker.

She added, “At the time, he was so sick, we chose to focus on his treatment and recovery and not question why or how it happened.”

Spiker now believes her husband’s cancer was caused by what he was exposed to, and why they were working to tell other first responders about help through the World Trade Center Health Program.

“I knew several had went with the [Etowah County] Sheriff’s Department and we talked at length about getting them together, and giving them information,” said Spiker.

In the middle of their planning, Todd Spiker unexpectedly died from a massive heart attack.

“It was Easter Sunday he died, and we do believe a lot of the heart damage was related to the chemo drugs and to the radiation.”

Spiker’s story is tragically one shared by tens-of-thousands of 9/11 responders and survivors.

The Department of Justice released a report this week that estimates more people have died from 9/11-related illness than were killed in the attacks.

“This is not work for me, this is personal,” said Jeannie Kelly.

Kelly is a retired NYPD officer who worked at Ground Zero and now works to tell first responders around the country about the World Trade Center Health Program.

“Being in the program and getting the free screening gives us the opportunity to identify something that you may not even know you have or get it early enough to treat it and mitigate it and then all the expenses related to those conditions are then paid for, for the rest of your life,” said Kelly, Director, 9/11 Outreach and Education, Turken, Heath & McCauley, LLC.

There are four eligible groups for this program, FDNY Responders, WTC General Responders, Pentagon/Shanksville Responders, or WTC Survivors. Eligibility criteria is based on location, time period, minimum hours and activity performed. For example, someone who helped with debris cleanup in Lower Manhattan for at least 24 hours between September 11, 2001 and September 30, 2001 is eligible. The minimum time requirements are only 4 hours for people who responded to the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

“The language that is used is, the presumption is that any one of us who worked down there will get sick. And that is exactly what has been taking place and continuing to do so now 20 year later,” said Kelly.

An estimated 400,000 Americans are eligible for this program and as many as 500 Alabamians are currently enrolled.

Kelly was recently invited by Spiker to speak with first responders from Etowah County. At the end of her presentation, Kelly enrolled two dozen officers, including Investigator Hooks.

“I didn’t think I qualified, I thought, well we was only there for a week, you know, this is more something for the people that was there living it everyday. I was happy to go help out, but I didn’t think I qualified. After speaking to [Kelly], she came down and spoke to us and she showed us the chart of what limited amount of time that was required because of the toxicity of the air we were breathing, it shocked me and I want to make sure that other people know that they qualify,” said Hooks.

He added, “Especially knowing what happened to Todd Spiker and his family, and knowing that there is a chance that we can get sick, it means the world to me that my wife and my children won’t be stressed as bad I have a little bit of coverage, I would have something to fall back on to get some help.”

Spiker said it took a few years for her husband to enroll in the program after learning about it, and wants other 9/11 responders, including her brothers and nephews who deployed to New York, to enroll as soon as possible.

“That’s one reason I’m here today is because I want to tell others who responded not to wait as long as we did because we feel like, I feel like now if he had gotten involved in that program earlier, they would have been screening not only for the certified conditions but also watching for lingering effects and secondary conditions like heart disease, cardiac artery disease which is caused by radiation to the chest.”

She added, “We would have possibly been able to catch, you know, his heart condition sooner.”

To learn more about the conditions covered in this program, click here:

To learn more about the certification process, click here:

The World Trade Center Health Program is separate from the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund and the New York State Workers’ Compensation Law.

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