NYPD detective Luis Alvarez, of Oceanside, captured the hearts and minds of the nation when he recently appeared before a congressional committee to plead for increased funding to care for 9/11 first responders like him who fell ill because of their service. Famed comedian Jon Stewart sat beside Alvarez, who appeared gaunt and tired. Long suffering from cancer, he was fading fast.
Alvarez died June 29, sending a collective chill across the country. A national hero had passed. On Wednesday morning, he received the funeral that he deserved.
Hundreds of uniformed NYPD officers and FDNY firefighters lined Ditmars Boulevard outside of Immaculate Conception Church in Astoria, Queens to pay homage to Alvarez at his funeral. Inside the church, Alvarez's son, David, approached the altar and tried put his late father's courage into words.
"Before he became an American hero, he was mine," David Alvarez said through tears. "He was my hero. My inspiration. The one, above all, who I wanted to make proud. The one who I aspired to be."
Luis Alvarez died at age 53 at a Rockville Centre hospice after a three-year battle with cancer related to his work at ground zero in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In his dying days, Alvarez gained national attention for appearing before members of the House Judiciary Committee. On Capitol Hill, with TV cameras rolling on June 11, Alvarez made a passionate plea for lawmakers to vote to extend the health care protection of first responders in the Sept. 11 Victims Compensation Fund.
Three weeks later, hundreds of mourners attended the nearly two-hour funeral Mass to pay their respects to Alvarez. Among them were his wife, Lainie, his sons, David, Tyler and Benjamin, other family members, friends, elected officials, police officers, firefighters and first responders. Before the Mass began, many of them wiped away tears as Alvarez's casket, draped in the NYPD's white and green flag, was lifted from a hearse and musicians played "Amazing Grace" on the bagpipes.
During his televised appearance in Washington, D.C. three weeks ago, Alvarez urged lawmakers to make sure that the Victims Compensation Fund continues. 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.
“Less than 24 hours from now, I will be serving my 69th round of chemotherapy,” Alvarez said during his testimony. “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.”
At Alvarez's funeral, New York City Police Commissioner James O'Neill praised him for his bravery and also urged members of Congress to heed his words.
“It is in Lou’s memory," O'Neill said, "that we must strenuously encourage all our representatives to recognize that the United States of America cannot in good conscience place a financial cap or temporal limit on this slow-moving crisis. They absolutely must vote to extend and to shore up adequate funding ... because, as Lou flatly insisted, it’s the right thing to do.”
O'Neill said that Alvarez was one of more than 500 officers who have contracted illnesses — many life-threatening — from their service at ground zero. “As of this morning, 222 of them have already died, including Lou Alvarez," he said, "and tomorrow that number could rise, and in the years ahead, it most assuredly will."
Alvarez was born on Oct. 19, 1965, in Havana, Cuba. Not wanting to raise him and his two older brothers in a communist country, his parents moved to the United States before he turned 2. They settled in Astoria, and Alvarez eventually graduated from Monsignor McClancy Memorial High School, in Elmhurst. When he turned 18, Alvarez enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. After his service, he joined the NYPD, shortly before his 25th birthday.
Alvarez began his tenure in the NYPD by working uniform patrol for the 108th Precinct in Long Island City. He then transferred, working undercover for the narcotics bureau and eventually joined the bomb squad. It was during his time in narcotics that the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center unfolded.
"While most sat stunned and in disbelief, our city's finest and our city's bravest, our brother, Luis, responded without hesitation," his younger sister, Aida Lugo, told mourners at the service. "He would recount my desperate phone call to him, begging him not to go down there, to stay away. But go he did, and he would be down there for three months."
Three years ago, Alvarez was diagnosed with Stage 4 colorectal and liver cancer, which was correlated to his time spent at ground zero.
At the end of his funeral, hundreds stood solemnly, waiting for pallbearers to carry out Alvarez's casket as members of the NYPD stood at attention. Three helicopters soared low over Ditmars Boulevard before a hearse carrying his body drove away. The night before, hundreds of people flooded Towers Funeral Home in Oceanside to offer their condolences at his wake.
Alvarez asked that his funeral be a memorial to all first responders, the Rev. John P. Harrington said during his homily. Harrington also described a moment days before Alvarez's death, when he told his family that he was imagining that he was walking. His family asked Alvarez where he envisioned he was walking, Harrington said. "I'm on the pile," he replied, referring to the rubble of the World Trade Center, where he spent three months of his life attempting to help restore a broken and battered New York City.
Harrington also recounted that Alvarez frequently spoke about wanting to discover his mission and his purpose after his grim diagnosis. He said for three years, the former NYPD officer had a great deal of time to think and reflect, and that Alvarez began a hobby of burnishing signs made of wood, on which he wrote messages for his friends, family and peers.
Harrington fondly recalled that he, too, received a gift from Alvarez before he died, inscribed with a message.
"So I'll leave you with the last words that Luis left for me," he said. " ... Sometime during those three years of suffering, he inscribed the words, 'At the end, the only thing that matters is how much we loved.'"