The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center gave many New York-area banks their first opportunity to play the role of insurance agent in helping consumer and business customers put their lives back together.

After a disaster, people traditionally call their insurance agents for money to replace property, for help getting through a crippling business interruption, and — in the worst case — to find out to how use a life insurance policy to pay for a funeral, a mortgage, or a child’s college education.

Jim Kalach, a spokesman for Webster Financial Corp., said Thursday that last week was the first time the Waterbury, Conn., banking company’s insurance operation had had to deal with disaster claims.

Webster Insurance had seen three business-interruption claims and expected more claims for damaged property and autos. However, Mr. Kalach said, it was impossible to predict its workload. “We are servicing the claims — we have three claims reps in our Westport office — but some are calling the insurer directly.”

Glen Milesko, chief executive officer of Banc One Insurance Group, mentioned concerns that property/casualty claims might not be honored because of exclusions for acts of war. However, he said it would be “a public-relations disaster” for insurers to try to deny claims on that basis, and he predicted they would respond to people and businesses seeking recourse from their policies.

Mr. Milesko’s operation, which is part of Bank One Corp., also sells annuity products, but on Thursday he said the number of requests for redemption had not increased since the disaster. He said that from Tuesday through midday Thursday only two sell orders had come in for variable annuities, a typical number for a three-day period. “People typically look at annuities for retirement, and that’s what they’re doing here,” he said.

Ed Kiessling, president and chief operating officer of Commerce National Insurance, the insurance unit of Commerce Bancorp in Cherry Hill, N.J., said his company has received several calls. “People are calling and saying, ‘What’s going to happen?’” he said.

Most of the insurance operation’s clients are in New Jersey, he said, but “we did have clients in New York, and one of them was in the building.”

“They had substantial loss of life there,” Mr. Kiessling said. He declined to name the client or give any other details. Mr. Kiessling said the financial impact of the disaster would probably not deter banks from getting into insurance, despite the difficulty they may find in obtaining insurance contracts or finding capacity to cover new business. “It’s not going to affect our decision to continue to acquire companies,” he said.

One big issue, however, is the loss of talent, especially with so many people missing from the top insurance agencies, Marsh Inc. and Aon Corp., Mr. Kiessling said. “The talent loss is just going to be devastating to the industry.”

Other banks with a New York area presence, such as HSBC and People’s in Connecticut, acknowledged Thursday that their insurance operations could face an influx of customer service calls. but they said they could not give further information on the extent of the problem by deadline.

Several insurance companies with exposures in New York have set up hot lines for people to call with claims, including Chubb Corp. of Warren, N.J.

The insurance coverages that are affected go beyond life insurance for those who die and property/casualty coverage for the buildings and personal property destroyed in the disaster. Banks also sell disability coverage, group health, and workers compensation insurance, all of which could come into play in the coming weeks.

Though complete estimates will not be available for some time, the Insurance Information Institute, a New York-based industry group that acts as a clearinghouse for insurance data, said the losses would probably be in the billions.

For comparison, the group said the 1993 World Trade Center bombing caused $510 million of insured losses. The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing resulted in insured losses of $125 million. The Los Angeles riots of 1992, previously the most costly insured man-made disaster resulted in insured losses of $775 million.

Amy Friedman and David Reich-Hale contributed to this article.

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