WASHINGTON—It was two years ago this week that firefighter Michael Childress' heart quit on him at his firehouse in rural Randolph County, N.C.
He had gone into a back room to watch television while a pal fetched hot dogs for supper. Childress' teenage daughter stopped by the station and found him slumped in his chair.
The 48-year-old wasn't overtaken by flames or smothered by smoke. But under a new law, Childress died in the line of duty and should be due nearly $300,000 in federal benefits.
His wife, Teresa, hasn't seen any of it.
Nationwide, more than 200 survivors of such victims continue to wait for death benefits that Congress and President Bush approved more than three years ago. The delays have outraged advocates for fallen firefighters and police officers, who say the U.S. Justice Department is stonewalling legitimate benefits payouts.
"The Justice Department appears to be intentionally misinterpreting the intention of Congress," said Rep. Bob Etheridge, D-N.C., who sponsored the bill, called the Hometown Heroes Act. "It's time for people in the Justice Department to stop dragging their feet and putting up roadblocks."
Teresa Childress said she never expected the bureaucracy to be so difficult.
"It's been a long experience," Childress said of her quest for benefits. "It's been a lot of waiting and waiting and waiting."
Domingo S. Herraiz, director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, which oversees the program, said in a statement Friday that the applications are "unique and require different levels of review and outreach."
He added, though, that the agency pledges to have answers within 90 days of receiving "all necessary information."
Firefighters crushed by burning structures and police officers shot by suspects earn much of the public attention given to emergency responders killed in the line of duty.
But Michael Childress' cause of death, a heart attack, is much more common in his profession.
National statistics from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security show stress and overexertion are the top killer of firefighters. It is the No. 2 killer for law enforcement officers, behind car wrecks.
A study published this spring in the New England Journal of Medicine said firefighters are more prone to heart attacks after responding to emergency calls.
For a long time, deaths following an emergency incident didn't earn survivors federal benefits.
Bush signed the new law into existence in 2003 in a White House ceremony.
It says that if an emergency responder dies of a heart attack or stroke within 24 hours of duty, there is a "presumption" that the person died in the line of duty. The law includes exceptions for those with desk jobs, focusing on people who respond physically to emergency calls.
But critics say the administration has done just the opposite of Congress' intentions, requiring families to submit years of medical records to prove their cases.
"It's creating a lot of hardships on a lot of families," said Bill Webb, executive director of the Congressional Fire Services Institute, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington. "Right now it's putting the burden right back on family members, which should not be the case."
There is a lot of money at stake as well.
The benefits, set now at $295,194 per death, could add up to $59 million if the more than 200 cases pending now were all approved.
The medical data families collect at the request of the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance is sent to experts at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.
Medical records often show that deceased victims of heart attack or stroke had previous risk factors, agency officials say.
As of late April, only 42 decisions have been made. Just two families were awarded benefits.
"That is appalling. That is ridiculous," Etheridge said. "They were doing their job in a line of duty."
The new law may have had other unintended effects, such as adding a new burden to grieving families that was not in previous legislation.
On Oct. 20, 2006, sheriff's deputy Jeremy V. Reynolds was en route to investigate a report of shots being fired in Oakland, Tenn. He lost control and slammed his vehicle in a wreck so fiery that his wife had only parts of her husband to bury.
To Jackie Reynolds, the case for job-related death benefits was simple.
But a few months ago, a case manager asked her for 15 years of medical history to prove Jeremy Reynolds, who was 32, didn't suffer a heart attack from a previous condition.
"I don't understand," Jackie Reynolds said of the federal agency. "I'm not their enemy. I'm asking them for what (the benefits program) is there for. My husband wasn't doing anything but what he took an oath to do."
She still hasn't heard an answer about his benefits.
`HOMETOWN HEROES' BY THE NUMBERS
In 2006, 106 firefighters died in the line of duty nationwide, according to the U.S. Fire Administration in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Of those, 13 would have counted as "hometown heroes" under a new law meant to cover heart attack and stroke victims, meaning they may have died after leaving duty or the scene of a fire.
Stress and overexertion, which includes heart attacks and strokes, was the No. 1 killer of firefighters last year.
Number, Cause of death, Percentage of total
54 Stress/Overexertion 50.9 percent
16 Caught/Trapped 15.0 percent
19 Vehicle Collision 17.9 percent
6 Struck by 5.66 percent
5 Collapse 4.71 percent
3 Lost 2.83 percent
1 Contact with 0.94 percent
1 Exposure 0.94 percent
1 Other 0.94 percent
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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