'A lot of them, they were covered in white soot’: 9/11 first responder shares his story

Posted at 11:44 PM, Sep 10, 2021

SUFFOLK, Va. – Richard Lewis still vividly remembers the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, 20 years later.

“It was a tragic time,” said Lewis. “A terrible time for America.”

The New York City native who lives in Suffolk for part of the year spent Friday looking back on the indelible images he captured from that tragic day.

Lewis showed News 3 videos he took from Ground Zero, recalling the gray powder that filled the air as he was running toward the horror.

“Some of them were in a daze,” said Lewis. “A lot of them, they were covered in white soot. Everyone that was coming across that bridge was covered in white soot.”

The highly decorated NYPD detective was retired when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center. That didn’t stop Lewis from rushing to help as soon as the towers collapsed. He worked on the debris pile trying to find anyone but would only see two Port Authority officers pulled out alive.

“We had it in our minds that people were trapped and were waiting for us, and we start digging,” Lewis said.

Lewis, like many other first responders, had only a surgical mask covering his face from the dust for the first few weeks. FEMA later gave them a respirator to wear.

“Some guys took off the face masks, but I didn't do that,” Lewis said. “The only time I took it off was when I was eating something and drinking water.”

He’d go on to help in both recovery and ministry efforts for the next seven months.

“For at least for the first five days, every time I left there I was covered with soot where I was white,” said Lewis. “I didn't know at the time that we were not only breathing in asbestos - we were breathing human ash and whatever else.”

Now, at 78 years old, Lewis’ respiratory issues are getting worse. He said he suffers from a persistent cough, has shortness of breath and has chronic sinus problems. His doctors believe it’s possibly linked to exposure to trade center dust and toxins.

Lewis is enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Program, a federal program that gives free medical care to 9/11 responders and others who worked or lived in lower Manhattan.

Lewis is still waiting for compensation.

“All I can do is hope that they do the right thing by me,” he said.

Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va., 2nd District) was serving in the Navy on 9/11.

“One of the reasons I continued serving in the Navy for another 15 years after that was because I felt like it was a mission that we needed to do,” said Luria.

The Congresswoman is working on a similar compensation bill to help veterans during their service overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The science that's been done and the research relative to those 9/11 firefighters and first responders, I think it's going to in turn actually help inform and get benefits and healthcare for some of our veterans because they're very similar circumstances, similar symptoms and prevalence of different respiratory and other diseases,” Luria said.

Related: 'Unspeakable devastation': ODU professor recounts response to Pentagon on 9/11

In the meantime, as Lewis waits to hear back from doctors and the health program, he said he’s just grateful to be alive.

“I’m still here; that’s the most important thing - that I'm still here,” he said. “I have life, and I can move around. I don't live for money. I live for God and people.”