Luis Alvarez, 9/11 First Responder and Advocate, Dies at 53

June 29, 2019 Updated: June 29, 2019

Luis Alvarez, a retired NYPD bomb squad detective who described for Congress his 9/11-related medical issues during an impassioned appeal for an extension of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, died Saturday in a hospice in New York. He was 53.

His death from complications of cancer linked to the time he spent with other first responders in the rubble at ground zero was announced in a Facebook statement from his family.

“We told him at the end that he had won this battle by the many lives he had touched by sharing his three-year battle,” the statement said. “He was at peace with that, surrounded by family. Thank you for giving us this time we have had with him, it was a blessing.”

Alvarez entered end-of-life hospice care last week.

On June 11, a frail Alvarez made his way to Washington with other first responders to testify in a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing for an extension of the fund for police officers, firefighters and other emergency workers who became ill after laboring at the site of the 2001 World Trade Center terrorist attacks. He received a standing ovation that day.

Retired Fire Department of New York Lieutenant and 9/11 responder Michael O’Connell, left, FealGood Foundation co-founder John Feal, center, and former Daily Show Host Jon Stewart, right, applaud following testimony from Retired New York Police Department detective and 9/11 responder Luis Alvarez during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on reauthorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund on Capitol Hill on June 11, 2019, in Washington, DC. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

“I’m now in hospice, because (there) is nothing else the doctors can do to fight the cancer,” Alvarez wrote in a Facebook post the following week.

Some lawmakers on the panel did not show up for the hearing this month, leading to a fiery speech from comedian and fund proponent Jon Stewart.

“As I sit here today, I can’t help but think what an incredible metaphor this room is for the entire process that getting health care and benefits for 9/11 first responders has come to,” Stewart said.

Alvarez, speaking slowly, told lawmakers in the room that he planned to get his 69th round of chemotherapy the next day.

“You made me come down here the day before my 69th round of chemo, and I’m going to make sure that you never forget to take care of the 9/11 responders,” he said.

“We were there with one mission, and we left after completing that mission,” he said. “I have been to many places in this world and done many things, but I can tell you that I did not want to be anywhere else but Ground Zero when I was there.”

He added, “Now that the 9/11 illnesses have taken many of us, we are all worried about our children and spouses and our families if we are not here.”

Retired New York Police Department detective and 9/11 responder Luis Alvarez, left, and Former Daily Show Host Jon Stewart, right are sworn in before testifying during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on reauthorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund on Capitol Hill on June 11, 2019, in Washington, DC. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

But Alvarez later posted on Facebook that a nurse noticed he was disoriented when he went for chemo treatment. Tests then revealed that his liver had completely shut down because of his tumors, he said.

“So now I’m resting and I’m at peace. I will continue to fight until the Good Lord decides it’s time,” he wrote. “I will try to do a few more interviews to keep a light on our fight for the VCF benefits we all justly deserve. Please take care of yourselves and each other.”

The fund was created in the months following the 2001 attacks and was initially active for two years, paying more than $7 billion relating to injuries and deaths caused by the 9/11 attacks.

But first responders who spent weeks at the site breathing in noxious air clouded with debris from the collapsed buildings—after New York and federal officials told them it was safe—have since been diagnosed with a variety of debilitating illnesses and cancers.

Firefighters work beneath the destroyed mullions, the vertical struts which once faced the soaring outer walls of the World Trade Center towers, after a terrorist attack on the twin towers in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Firefighters work beneath the destroyed mullions, the vertical struts which once faced the soaring outer walls of the World Trade Center towers, after a terrorist attack on the twin towers in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. (Mark Lennihan/FILE PHOTO via AP)
A man standing amid rubble, calling out asking if anyone needs help, following the collapse of the first World Trade Center tower in New York after two hijacked planes crashed into the buildings. (Doug Kanter/AFP/Getty Images)

Congress and President Barack Obama agreed in 2010 to pay their medical costs, reopened the fund and set aside $2.7 billion to pay victims just learning about chronic health problems resulting from their work in 2001. In 2012, the government determined that cancers can be compensated as part of the fund.

It wasn’t nearly enough money, however, and in 2015 Congress added $4.6 billion in funding, along with new controls and limits on some payments. The special master who administers the fund anticipates that total payouts for claims filed before the measure expires in 2020 could be far higher: $11.6 billion, if a current uptick in claims—largely caused by an increase in serious illnesses and deaths—continues.

The current proposal to permanently extend the fund would authorize it through 2089. It has plenty of support in the House, where it passed the Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Mitch McConnell indicated that Congress would address the fund.

As of May, more than 12,500 cases of cancer had also been diagnosed, according to The World Trade Center Health Program, a separate health care program related to the victim fund run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The most diagnosed ailments are upper and lower respiratory issues like asthma, gastrointestinal problems like reflux, musculoskeletal disorders and mental health conditions.

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