ICE agent with 9/11 cancer fighting Labor Dept. for pension
Friday, September 22, 2017, 4:00 AM
Special Agent Terence Opiola will retire this week after more than 25 years working for the federal government as a criminal investigator — just in time to try and solve the biggest puzzle of his life.
Opiola, 49, was diagnosed two years ago with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. It joined the long list of his other 9/11-related diseases: acid reflux, sleep apnea, sinusitis, rhinitis and chronic respiratory condition.
The World Trade Center Victims Compensation Fund and the federal Office of Personnel Management have both agreed that Opiola suffers from what’s known as “9/11 leukemia blood cancer”.
But the Department of Labor sees it differently.
In a letter dated July 19, the DOL denied his application for disability through workers’ compensation — saying the link to 9/11 was unproved.
“Your claim ... has been denied because the fifth basic element, causal relationship, has not been met,” the letter said.
Three days later, he got a letter from OPM.
“We have found you to be disabled from your position as a special agent in charge due to ... leukemia,” it said.
The split between two federal agencies has left Opiola able to retire — but not able to access the tax-free, three-quarter disability pension he would have received if the Department of Labor had approved his claim.
“It’s so confusing,” said Opiola. “The Deptartment of Labor is asking for all kinds of information — at this point, I don’t even understand what they want anymore.”
The DOL didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
In his job as a criminal investigator with the U.S. Customs Service, which was located at 6 World Trade Center, Opiola had spent months after 9/11 at Ground Zero searching through the ruins for missing case evidence.(Maisel, Todd)
This latest and worst chapter in Opiola’s story began in 2015, when the fatigue that had dogged him for a few years turned into a bone-crushing exhaustion that left him unable to get out of bed some days.
His wife pushed him to go back to the World Health Trade Center Health Program where he’d been receiving treatment for more than a decade.
It was then he was diagnosed with leukemia, a disease that attacks white blood cells.
In his job as a criminal investigator with the U.S. Customs Service, which was located at 6 World Trade Center, Opiola had spent months after 9/11 at Ground Zero searching through the ruins for missing case evidence.
“We had all kinds of evidence on major cases in the safe beneath the building. We had to go and get it to protect our interests, and we also helped out with the search and rescue efforts,” he said.
Later, he was dispatched to comb through the Staten Island Fresh Kills landfill where the debris was dumped, looking for traces of evidence about 9/11’s victims.
“Sometimes we’d find a partial ID, someone’s security card, or a piece of paper with letterhead,” he said. “We always hoped it would help give closure to some families, at least.”
Opiola often ferried dust-covered evidence with him in his car to his agency’s new office in New Jersey.
“My car got so contaminated they actually had to destroy it,” he said.
He soon developed the nasty, phlegmy cough that hit so many first responders. By that December, he had to be reassigned.
Opiola often ferried dust-covered evidence with him in his car to his agency's new office in New Jersey: "My car got so contaminated they actually had to destroy it," he said.(James Keivom/New York Daily News)
Even as his symptoms worsened and new illnesses cropped up, Opiola kept working, becoming part of the Department of Homeland Security when it was formed out of his former agency in 2003.
Opiola considers himself lucky because his leukemia is currently under control and he can retire with a pension.
“But I can’t understand how two different federal agencies can have two different positions on a 9/11 cancer — so I’m bringing this up to help the next federal employee it might happen to,” he said.
Opiola and his lawyer, former NYPD cop and Ground Zero responder Matthew McCauley, have requested a hearing with DOL.
“They told me the earliest time would be January,” said Opiola.
McCauley said the DOL benefit that Opiola is seeking would be the equivalent to a line-of-duty disability pension awarded to city cops and firefighters who are diagnosed with a 9/11 illness.
“Terence’s doctors are the leading scientists doing the research and writing the studies that were used by the federal government to establish the list of recognized 9/11-related illnesses,” said McCauley.
They're listed on the Centers for Disease Control website, including leukemia, he noted.
“Terence’s doctors all agree his illness is from 9/11,” he said. "To question their expertise is incomprehensible.” Send a Letter to the Editor
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