In Luis Alvarez’s final weeks before dying of cancer linked to his work at Ground Zero, the retired NYPD detective from Oceanside became a hero to heroes.
Alvarez, 53, was cast into the national spotlight earlier this month during a televised appearance on Capitol Hill about the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund amid congressional inertia.
His face gaunt, his frame frail, Alvarez was a portrait of resilience and courage as he joined activist/comedian Jon Stewart in making an emotional plea to extend health care funding for first responders like himself.
“He’s selfless, and even dying he traveled to D.C. to make sure that other people were taken care of,” said Michael O’Connell of Westbury, a retired FDNY lieutenant who worked at Ground Zero as a probationary firefighter and was sick six years later with a rare autoimmune disorder called sarcoidosis. “He could have easily stayed home and spent time with his wife and children.”
Alvarez died before 3 a.m. on Saturday at a Rockville Centre hospice, officials said. He is survived by his wife and three adult sons.
“The 9/11 community lost a giant,” said John Feal, a first responder from Nesconset who lost half of his left foot after working to clear rubble from Ground Zero, calling Alvarez the “face of a movement.”
Feal, a longtime advocate for responder health care, likened Alvarez's stature in that community to the FDNY's Ray Pfeifer of Hicksville, a retired firefighter who was critical in convincing Congress to extend benefits for sick 9/11 responders during a prior legislative stall. Pfeifer died of cancer in May 2017.
“Lou wanted to advocate for tens of thousands of people that need this legislation passed,” Feal said of the latest fight in Washington.
On Facebook on Saturday, Alvarez's family said he was surrounded by family at the end: "Luis (Lou) Alvarez, our warrior, has gone home to our Good Lord in heaven today. Please remember his words, 'Please take care of yourselves and each other.' 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."
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio mourned his death: "Detective Lou Alvarez showed us what courage looks like as he fought fearlessly for the lives of his brothers and sisters who answered the call in our city’s darkest hour. This entire city mourns his loss. His fight is ours to finish."
On Twitter, NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill wrote: "Our NYPD family & all 1st responders mourn as we remember retired NYPD Bomb Squad Det. Luis Alvarez, who passed this morning. His strength — physical, mental & emotional — led us all, & we vow to #NeverForget him or his legacy — which was, simply, to have others do what’s right."
And the Long Beach Fire Department said in a statement: "Rest easy, Brother."
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), in a phone interview, lamented that he was supposed to visit Alvarez this weekend.
"It's tragedy that he has to die this way, but it's really inspiring that a person, knowing what he was going through and more importantly knowing what was ahead of him … and there was no way out, he never wavered, never faltered, kept fighting right until the end," King said. "He was a warrior right until the end — really inspiring person."
Alvarez started the job in October 1990, later was assigned to the bomb squad, and retired in October 2010, according to NYPD spokeswoman Det. Sophia T. Mason. He went into hospice a day after testifying about the cancer tied to his work at Ground Zero.
King said Alvarez had colorectal and liver cancer.
"I'm still here and still fighting … I'm now in hospice, because [there] is nothing else the doctors can do to fight the cancer," Alvarez wrote on Facebook then.
Tens of thousands of first responders like Alvarez and volunteers are at risk or have developed illnesses linked to toxins at the recovery site.
"I will not stand by and watch as my friends with cancer from 9/11 like me are valued less than anyone else because when they get sick, they die," Alvarez told lawmakers in his congressional testimony.
The $7 billion fund is being drained and has slashed benefit payments by up to 70 percent. Legislation pending before Congress would ensure the fund can pay benefits for 70 years.
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has expressed reservations over cost, said he would allow a vote on the bill, according to advocates. McConnell could not be reached for comment.
In a phone interview, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he has spoken to McConnell several times to push for the legislation's passage. Schumer said he hopes that public pressure will convince McConnell to put the bill up for a vote without modification in the form the House is expected to pass.
"We're on the five-yard line but there could still be a fumble before we get over the goal line," Schumer said.
O’Connell, the retired FDNY lieutenant, said he hopes to maximize the time spent with his wife and three children, 12, 10, and 7 — time that would be impossible without the health care guaranteed by the legislation that people like Alvarez and Pfeifer fought to pass in the winter of their own lives.
“Men like Lou Alvarez and Ray Pfeifer make it possible for me to continue on with my life," O'Connell said, "and get the health care that I deserve."