Robert Tilearcio, an FDNY firefighter from Massapequa Park who pressed Congress to fund medical benefits for first responders suffering from 9/11-related illnesses, died Oct. 25 from brain cancer related to his own work on the pile after the terrorist attacks.
Tilearcio, a 34-year veteran of the FDNY, was 58, his family said.
After terrorists drove passenger planes into the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001, Tilearcio, a member of Engine 266 in Far Rockaway, worked 24-hour shifts for at least a month at Ground Zero, said his wife, Tina Tilearcio.
Tilearcio struggled with a variety of illnesses for a decade before he was diagnosed with cancer on May 8, 2015, she said. He always hoped he would return to firefighting.
“He just loved it. It was in his blood,” his wife said of his FDNY career. “His locker, to the day he died, was still full. He always thought he’d go back to work. That was his dream.”
Uniformed Firefighters Association president Gerard Fitzgerald in a statement after Tilearcio’s death called him “undoubtedly one of New York City’s bravest.”
Tilearcio made about a half-dozen trips over the years to Washington, D.C. to advocate for renewal of the Zadroga Act, which funds medical care for first responders stricken by illnesses connected to 9/11. The act was later extended to 2090, essentially covering all those affected.
“He went and supported his fellow firefighters,” said Tina Tilearcio. “Some of them were in bed and sick and couldn’t get up and go.”
Tilearcio was born and raised in the Inwood section of Manhattan, and attended Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx for three years before graduating from Beach Channel High School in Rockaway Park, Queens.
He went to Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn and later mortician’s school and became a funeral director, before starting in the FDNY on Dec. 12, 1983.
He loved the culture of the fire department, and for 25 years Tilearcio stocked his firehouse commissary, making trips with his wife and two kids to Costco to buy supplies, his family said. For Christmas, he dressed up as Santa and in summertime he filled water balloons for kids at a firehouse picnic.
He got his real estate license in the 1990s, and sold homes in his time off. He also loved skiing and going to amusement parks.
He took classes at Stand-Up University in Bellmore and had done comedy gigs for the past seven years. In a Facebook post, the school remembered him: “He made every class so much fun with his infectious laughter.”
In addition to his wife, Tilearcio is survived by his son Robert Jr. and daughter Tatiana. He was entombed at St. Charles Cemetery in Farmingdale.