A retired New York City firefighter and Vietnam war veteran from Farmingdale will be laid to rest Tuesday on Long Island after dying Thursday of a 9/11-related lung cancer, his family said Monday.
Robert Newman, 70, worked from one firehouse during his 39 years with FDNY - Ladder 18 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, his wife Claire said.
“He wouldn’t take any of the tests for promotions because he didn’t want to leave his firehouse,” she said. “He loved the guys, he loved the older guys, he loved the younger guys. He was all fire department . . . He’s a family guy and the fire department is very family-like. It’s a second family.”
But it was a career that cost him his health, his family said.
The Farmingdale retiree was the latest firefighter to fall victim to 9/11 illnesses — 127 deaths as of September, when the FDNY releases its officials counts, said Jim Long, spokesman for the New York City Fire Department.
Newman and fellow firefighters had rushed to the Twin Towers after the first plane hit on Sept. 11, 2001, and he took cover under a firetruck when the first tower fell, then ran out to search for survivors, his wife said.
Days later, the firefighter returned home, covered with dust down to the inside of his undershirt, she recounted, but what he breathed in couldn’t be washed out of his lungs.
Newman was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2011, prompting doctors to cut out cancerous chunks of his left lung, but the disease returned worse than ever last October to his right lung and spread, his widow said.
Even though her husband had been a smoker, Claire Newman said, his surgeon had no doubt the cancer was related to 9/11.
“The lung doctor said he never saw lungs like that in all the surgeries he ever did,” the widow said. “He said there were so many particles, glass, asbestos, cement . . . He said his lungs were like leather.”
But Newman was never bitter about getting sick, especially after seeing children and babies with cancer during his hospital visits. He was the lucky one, having lived a good life for decades, he had told his wife.
The two had met on a blind date shortly after he returned in 1967 from his one-year stint in the Vietnam War, having been drafted into the Army. He was shot in the leg and was awarded the Purple Heart, but he didn’t talk much about that time to his wife.
“We went out for two months and he asked me to marry him,” Claire Newman recounted with a laugh.
But she said no because she felt she was too young, only 19. She made him wait — a month — then said yes after her mother extolled Newman’s virtues.
“We were a perfect match,” Claire Newman said. “We had the same values and we both wanted children.”
The son of a New York City police officer, Newman took his father’s advice to sign up for NYPD or the city fire department after returning from Vietnam.
After being hired October 1968, he was ready to quit after several fires, Claire Newman said. At that time, there were several ship fires on the Lower East Side, and Newman told his wife that they were hard to fight, partly because the ships were dark inside.
But he hung in, she said, and started to love his “second family.”
He was cited for an individual act of bravery in 1973 and retired in September 2007.
Besides his wife, he is survived by sons Bobby of Los Gatos, California, and Michael of Rosendale, New York, and sister Kathleen Smith of Pasadena, Maryland.
A funeral Mass will be held 11 a.m. Tuesday at St. Kilian Roman Catholic Church in Farmingdale, followed by burial at the Long Island National Cemetery in Pinelawn.