Oceanside resident and NYPD Detective Luis Alvarez didn’t live to see the extension of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund he spent his final days fighting for, but his remarks on Capitol Hill before a Congressional committee weeks before his death helped keep hope alive.
On July 23, the Senate voted, 97-2, in favor of replenishing the fund by $10.2 billion over the next 10 years. It benefits first responders, like Alvarez, who contracted illnesses from the toxic fumes at ground zero in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The House approved the bill, 402-12, on July 12, and President Trump signed it into law on Monday.
John Feal, a first responder from Nesconset who lost half of his left foot after working to clear rubble at ground zero, said he was pleased that the bill was passed. He also lauded Alvarez and the late Ray Pfeifer, a first responder from Hicksville who also died of a 9/11-related illness, for fighting to extend the funding up until their deaths.
“What they did was majestic and what they did was monumental,” Feal told the Herald by phone from Washington, D.C. on Monday. “They went to D.C. in their last days and weeks and months. They could have spent those final days with their families preparing to meet their maker, but they chose to create a legacy — a legacy that can’t be tarnished and can’t be duplicated, and for that, I am forever grateful to them.”
Alvarez, a retired NYPD detective, died at age 53 of stage 4 colorectal and liver cancer on June 29. Just weeks earlier, he appeared before the House Judiciary Committee and pleaded with lawmakers to extend the fund, which was set to expire in December 2020.
After the bill was passed, Alvarez’s wife, Lainie, did not respond to a request for comment by press time, but she praised her husband on his Facebook page in a statement after his death.
“Please remember his words, ‘Please take care of yourselves and each other,’” Lainie wrote. “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. He was at peace with that, surrounded by family.”
After the bill passed in the Senate, Feal said, he cried alongside former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, who lambasted lawmakers for delaying their decision. Feal noted, however, that it was hard to be happy knowing that so many people have suffered. “The bill doesn’t save anybody’s lives,” he said. “The bill only offers financial relief to those who are burdened.”
Stewart sat beside a frail and gaunt Alvarez during his televised appearance on Capitol Hill on June 11, where the former NYPD detective discussed his suffering. “Less than 24 hours from now, I will be serving my 69th round of chemotherapy,” Alvarez said during his testimony. “I should not be here with you, but you made me come. You made me come because I will not stand by and watch as my friends with cancer from 9/11, like me, are valued less than anyone else.”
Hundreds of people attended Alvarez’s funeral at Immaculate Conception Church in Astoria, Queens on July 3. Those who spoke at the Mass, including NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill, publicly pushed for lawmakers to ensure that Alvarez’s pleas did not go unnoticed.
After the Senate’s approval, O’Neill pressed Trump to sign the bill on his Twitter account. “Now that the U.S. Senate has voted overwhelmingly to #Renew911VCF, we look forward to @POTUS swiftly signing it into law and doing right by @NYPDnews, @FDNY & all of America’s 9/11 first responders,” O’Neill tweeted, “heroes who did their jobs with the utmost courage and selflessness.”
Stewart also spoke publicly after the vote. “We can never repay the 9/11 community for what they’ve done, but we can stop penalizing them,” he said, standing alongside first responders and advocates for the funding. “. . . There have been too many funerals, too many hospices. Their facilities deserve better.”
Anthony D’Esposito, a former NYPD detective and Island Park Fire Department chief, said that as the president prepared to sign the bill into law, America should pause to remember first responders such as Alvarez and Pfeifer, who risked their lives to serve.
“Lou Alvarez and Ray Pfeifer continued to protect, serve and fight, even in their final days,” he said. “Lou embodied our motto in the NYPD and remained ‘Fidelis Ad Mortem’ [Faithful Until Death] in order to help those who will continue to suffer from those heinous attacks on our nation.”
More than 340 New York City firefighters died on Sept. 11, 2001, while responding to the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center. Since then, more than 200 have died from illnesses contracted at ground zero. Amid billions of dollars worth of claims, a political debate spurned over the size of the compensation plan. Awards from the funds were cut in half last year amid uncertainty over how much money Congress would provide.
But with Trump signing the bill Monday, Feal said he was thankful for the support of so many people, and added that making hundreds of trips to the nation’s capital was worth it.
“To the American people who supported us, I thank them,” Feal said. “Over 300 meetings, countless trips to D.C. . . . Those who supported our team, they’re the real reason this bill got passed.”