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'We promised we would never forget'

Late Oceanside resident Luis Alvarez's brother speaks at Town of Hempstead's 9/11 memorial service

Former NYPD detective died of cancer he contracted at ground zero

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As Phil Alvarez prepared to speak at the Town of Hempstead’s beachside memorial to commemorate the 19th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, his mind flashed back to the experiences his brother had at Point Lookout.

“I said yes to speaking here because this is where my brother went to the beach with his kids,” Phil told the Herald before the ceremony. “It’s where he loved to go fishing. It’s a town that has always honored the original 9/11 victims, and those that have died so many years later, and we promised we would never forget.”

On June 29, 2019, former NYPD Detective Luis Alvarez, 54, died of colorectal cancer brought on by his work at ground zero after the attacks. He rose to national acclaim in his dying days for fighting to keep the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund alive, and his brother is now continuing the battle by advocating for those who qualify for it.

Last Friday, Phil Alvarez spoke at the town’s remembrance ceremony in Point Lookout. Though the 19th anniversary of the attacks was different from the previous ones because of the coronavirus pandemic, Phil said it was important to remember the lives lost on that dark day and those who have died since by hosting safe ceremonies.

“I think we can’t forget, and we promised we would never forget, and we can’t let a thing like Covid stop us from honoring those that came to our aid, honoring those souls that perished in the buildings and their families,” he said. “We have to find a way to honor them, and I’m very happy the Town of Hempstead is doing that.”

Shortly before his death, Luis garnered national attention for appearing before members of the House Judiciary Committee with the support of Phil, famed comedian Jon Stewart and a host of others. On Capitol Hill, with TV cameras rolling on June 11, 2019, he made a passionate plea for lawmakers to vote to extend health care benefits for first responders through the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. On July 23, 2019, less than a month after Luis’s death, the Senate followed the House and voted, 97-2, to replenish the fund with $10.2 billion over the next 10 years. It benefits first responders, like Luis, who contracted illnesses from the toxic fumes and dust at ground zero in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

But for Phil, the work isn’t done. He said there are thousands of first responders who are eligible for the funding and need help. In June 2019, he joined Hansen & Rosasco, a Long Island-based law firm specializing in 9/11 VCF claims. Phil, who spent 32 years as a Suffolk County police officer, joined the firm as a 9/11 outreach and education director. In his role, he helps clients learn if they are eligible for the VCF and assists them in signing up for the World Trade Center Health Program.

When the towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001, 23 NYPD officers were killed. When Luis died of cancer, he became the 222nd NYPD officer to succumb to a 9/11-related illness.

“That’s a crazy number,” Phil said. “So we’re not done. His work isn’t done. His advocacy isn’t done, and as a family, we promised him we would continue to fight, and we will.”

Phil added that 2,977 people died on Sept. 11, 2001, and since then, more than 3,000 have fallen sick from working at ground zero, and thousands more will likely become ill in the future. It took 15 years for Luis to contract cancer, and he had a three-year battle before he died.

In addition to speaking at the Hempstead ceremony on Friday, Phil appeared on “Good Morning America” and spoke at a ceremony in Suffolk County. He said he was grateful to Hempstead and Nassau County for keeping his brother’s memory alive through memorial events.

In a letter to Phil, Hempstead Town Supervisor Don Clavin expressed his appreciation that he spoke at the event.

“It is with sincere gratitude that I thank you for choosing to join us on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, at Town Park Point Lookout as the Town of Hempstead marks the 19th anniversary of that heartbreaking day,” Clavin wrote. “Your words will serve as a living tribute to Detective Alvarez, and all the first responders who made the ultimate sacrifice on Sept. 11 and in the ensuing years.”

Phil said he planned to continue to help people through the firm and to take time each year on 9/11 to reflect on his brother and everyone who was lost that day. 

“The attacks were designed to break our spirits as a country and our spirits as Americans, and instead what we saw was not fear, but we saw courage,” he said, “and we saw bravery and we saw the self-sacrifice of so many people to help each other . . . We must never forget. We can never forget that.”