Inspired by his brother’s heroism, Phil Alvarez is continuing to fight for those who are suffering from 9/11-related illnesses.
Phil’s younger brother, Luis, of Oceanside, died on June 29, at age 54, after a three-year battle with Stage 4 colorectal cancer brought on by his work at ground zero after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Before his death, Luis successfully fought for the renewal of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, but Phil, 57, said that a new initiative could help thousands of people who were previously unable to apply for it.
He explained that the VCF had instituted a new “look-back” period, which means that those who missed registering for the fund, or had an application rejected because they exceeded the two-year time limit after they or a loved one were diagnosed with a 9/11-related illness, now had a chance to file again.
“For me personally, it’s just another way that I can fulfill my brother’s legacy of finding these victims and making sure that they’re taken care of,” Phil said. “It opens up another door for us to be able to help these victims and the families of those who aren’t around anymore.”
In June, Phil joined Turley 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 discover if they are eligible for the VCF and assists them in signing up for the World Trade Center Health Program.
The VCF was set to expire by 2020, but advocates such as Luis, who was posthumously named the Oceanside/Island Park Herald’s 2019 Person of the Year, and comedian Jon Stewart were able to push for its renewal. A gaunt Luis testified in front of a Congressional subcommittee weeks before his death, which helped lead to a decision to renew the fund through 2090. On July 29, President Trump signed the extension of the fund, which was named the “Never Forget the Heroes: James Zadroga, Ray Pfeifer and Luis Alvarez Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act,” in honor of the three major activists who succumbed to their 9/11-related illnesses, but fought for other victims in their dying days.
The look-back period is open until July 29, 2021, which will mark the second anniversary of Trump signing the extension.
According to the VCF’s website, the change “addresses concerns about claimants who missed prior deadlines because they did not know that the VCF existed or was open to them, did not know that their condition [or the death of their loved one] was related to 9/11 exposure, or did not realize that they were eligible to file a VCF claim or that the VCF would be in place beyond the previous 2020 end date.”
After the look-back period closes, registrants have two years to file a claim if they fall ill, which was how the fund worked before the extension. Many people who contracted illnesses from working at ground zero were unaware of the two-year window, and Phil said he was looking to get those people and anyone else to sign up for the VCF before the new deadline.
Turley, Hansen & Rosasco attorney Daniel Hansen noted that many people were unaware of the VCF. “Fewer than 1,200 families have applied for compensation from the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund,” he said in a statement. “Thousands of families don’t know that they may qualify for 100 percent reimbursement or all out-of-pocket burial/memorial expenses plus a substantial cash award.”
Though many police officers, firefighters and first responders are eligible for VCF funds, many people who lived and worked near ground zero in the aftermath of 9/11 are also eligible for it, and are unaware of it, Phil said. He added that his research has shown that there were about 400,000 residents, students, workers and first responders who were south of Canal Street between September 2001 and May 2002, who may have developed an illness, and only 2 percent have signed up for the fund.
The VCF compensates all victims who were exposed to toxins after the attacks on the twin towers in New York City, the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., and a field near Shanksville, Pa., where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed. Phil said that all people battling illnesses now have a second chance.
“We are applauding this because it allows some of these families who were suffering because they lost a loved one to now be able to file a death claim with the VCF and get compensated for the death of a loved one,” Phil said. “I believe it will be a great source of relief to a lot of families who are suffering with either an illness or a death in the family.”
There is an eligibility process that comes with applying for VCF funds, however. Two people must provide sworn affidavits confirming a person was in the attack zone. Phil said that cancer and other diseases related to work at ground zero could take decades to affect first responders. There are now 68 cancers linked to World Trade Center toxins, he said, as well as many respiratory and digestive ailments.
“Exposure to sickness can take 20 years,” Phil said. “We’re going to be seeing that. This isn’t stopping, it’s going to continue, and we really need to get the word out to folks.”
Phil said Turley, Hansen and Rosasco have been handling 9/11-related claims since October 2001. He added that as its 9/11 outreach and education coordinator, he meets with people and provides a quick seminar to inform them about the VCF and the World Trade Center Health Program.
According to Phil, as of Nov. 30, 2019, about 26,800 of 53,000 VCF claims were approved and roughly 14,000 were still pending. The fund had paid about $6 billion as of that time.
Phil said his work at the firm is his way of keeping his brother’s legacy alive, and that it is heartwarming when clients tell him that Luis was the reason they contacted him.
“That’s really when I feel his legacy of fighting for this bill and fighting to make sure that people who got sick in the future would be compensated,” he said. “When I actually see somebody and talk to somebody who says if it wasn’t for your brother, I wouldn’t be doing this, you can imagine the emotions involved with that. It’s a beautiful thing.”