An Oceanside man who advocated for those who developed illnesses linked to working at ground zero in the aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, died Saturday of cancer related to his own work at the World Trade Center.
Luis Alvarez, who was 53 when he died, is a former NYPD officer who gained national attention after a televised appearance on Capitol Hill on June 11.
Alongside comedian and activist Jon Stewart, Alvarez made an emotional plea to members of Congress to extend health care protection for first responders like himself in the Sept. 11 Victims Compensation Fund. The fund has slashed benefit payments by up to 70 percent, but pending federal legislation would ensure that it could pay benefits for another 70 years. It is set to run out of money in December 2020.
“It is with peace and comfort, that the Alvarez family announce that Luis (Lou) Alvarez, our warrior, has gone home to our Good Lord in heaven today,” Alvarez’s family announced in a post on social media. “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. He was at peace with that, surrounded by family.”
Alvarez died a little after 2 a.m. on Saturday at a Rockville Centre hospice, of complications from stage 4 colorectal and liver cancer. He is survived by his wife and three adult sons. Alvarez began hospice care a day after he testified before Congress about his cancer being tied to his work at ground zero and is one of tens of thousands of first responders and volunteers who are at risk or have been diagnosed with illnesses.
Despite his life-threatening diagnosis, a gaunt, frail Alvarez made it to Capitol Hill last month to share his story and advocate for others like him.
“Less than 24 hours from now, I will be serving my 69th round of chemotherapy,” he told members of the House Judiciary Committee. “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.”
He added that the fund was not “a ticket to paradise,” but was there to support the families of cancer-stricken first responders when they can’t provide for their loved ones themselves. According to the fund’s latest status report, which was released in February, it has fulfilled about 21,000 claims worth roughly $5 billion from injuries and illnesses related to the terrorist attacks, but some 17,000 other claims are still pending.
Alvarez was born in Cuba and grew up in Queens. He served in the Marines before a two-decade stint with the NYPD, which he began in October 1990. He eventually settled in Oceanside and was assigned to the NYPD’s bomb squad before retiring in 2010.
“Our NYPD family and all first responders mourn as we remember retired NYPD Bomb Squad Detective Luis Alvarez, who passed this morning,” the NYPD posted in a statement on its official Facebook page. “His strength — physical, mental and emotional — led us all, and we vow to #NeverForget him or his legacy — which was, simply, to have others do what’s right.”
NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill shared the statement on his personal Twitter account.
Alvarez’s activism and dedication made an impact on his fellow first responders. John Feal, of Nesconset, who lost half of his left foot after working to clear rubble at ground zero and was a friend of Alvarez’s, lauded him for joining in the fight to extend the funding.
“What Louie did was nothing short of heroic,” Feal told the Herald. “What he did, not only in 9/11 but in the days, weeks and years that followed. He was told he was going to die, and most people would spend that time with their family and their loved ones, and he chose to work toward getting this legislation passed.”
Feal, who met Alvarez three years ago, said that they and about 40 others took the latest trip to Washington. Feal said he has made 279 trips to the nation’s capital over the past 15 years, and has had more than 1,700 meetings. He noted that Congress would likely vote on whether to continue funding the Compensation Fund on Aug. 3, before its summer recess. “The 9/11 community lost a giant when they lost Louie, but America is behind us,” Feal said. “It’s going to force the elected officials to do what’s right and Louie’s passing is not going to be in vain.”
Several elected officials have also publicly praised Alvarez for his heroism.
“The heroic NYPD detective was brave and courageous to the end,” U.S. Rep. Pete King said in a statement. “Lou Alvarez personified the heart and soul of America. The 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund legislation must be passed and be Lou Alvarez’s lasting legacy.”
Town of Hempstead Councilman Anthony D’Esposito, of Island Park, also expressed his condolences. “My thoughts and prayers are with the family of NYPD Detective Lou Alvarez,” D’Esposito said in a statement, “a Town of Hempstead neighbor, a warrior who spent his final weeks continuing to fight for the victims of 9/11.”
In a statement, members of the Ocean-side Fire Department wrote, “Our community and our country will never forget him or his sacrifice.”
Visitation for Alvarez was scheduled for Tuesday at Towers Funeral Home in Oceanside, after the Herald went to press. His funeral Mass was scheduled for Wednesday at 10 a.m. at Immaculate Conception Church, at 2147 29th St. in Astoria, Queens. The Alvarez family has requested that donations in his name be made to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Kids Need More (kidsneedmore.org) and the FealGood Foundation (fealgoodfoundation.com.)
On June 19 — eight days after appearing on Capitol Hill — Alvarez shared an update on his condition in a Facebook post, in which he said he was “still here and still fighting,” but was in hospice care because the doctors could not do anything further to fight his cancer.
“So now I’m resting and I’m at peace,” Alvarez wrote in the post. “I will continue to fight until the Good Lord decides it’s time.”