In what he indicated was his final interview, Luis Alvarez’s message was simple: It’s time for the government to make things right.
The retired New York Police Department detective and Ground Zero responder implored members of Congress last week to reauthorize funding for people injured or sickened as a result of the 9/11 attacks. His heart-wrenching testimony drew national attention, one day before what would have been his 69th chemotherapy session to treat Stage 4 cancer. He was diagnosed 16 years after he rushed to Ground Zero after the twin towers collapsed.
But on Wednesday, Alvarez shared heartbreaking news. A nurse noticed he was disoriented before his chemotherapy, and testing revealed his liver had completely shut down. The prognosis was bleak — doctors said there was nothing more they could do, and Alvarez now rests in hospice care.
“I will continue to fight until the Good Lord decides it’s time,” Alvarez wrote on Facebook.
Speaking with Fox News’s Shepard Smith on Thursday, Alvarez fought once more. He again called on lawmakers to pass the compensation bill “quickly and efficiently” so victims are never forced to lobby again. Many others who responded to the attacks are at risk of falling ill, he said, even if they believe enough time has passed.
“You need to be covered. I’m lucky to have the health care I got, but there’s guys out there that don’t have it,” Alvarez told Smith. “There’s plenty of people out there, in terms of the stress of fighting cancer, they’re also fighting the financial stress of the health care. And it’s not right.”
The $7.3 billion fund was opened by the federal government in 2011 to compensate for deaths and sicknesses related to toxic exposure following 9/11, providing emergency responders and their families much-needed financial assistance. The fund is rapidly depleting, but the proposed bill would extend the program for decades.
Thus far, the fund has provided $5 billion in relief for about 21,000 claimants, The Washington Post previously reported. However, it will stop taking claims in December 2020, and more than 19,000 unpaid claims remain. Rupa Bhattacharyya, who oversees the fund, said in February that the cascade of new claims meant future payouts would be cut in half, sometimes by as much as 70 percent.
Alvarez’s testimony last week was amplified by Jon Stewart, who slammed legislators for not acting to support the victims despite campaigning on their issues. Speaking with “Fox & Friends” on Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he didn’t understand why Stewart was “all bent out of shape” over his handling of the fund. That night, while appearing on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” Stewart again stood up for the responders he has vociferously defended over the course of his career.
“I’m bent out of shape for them,” he said. “These are the first heroes and veterans and victims of the great trillions of dollars war on terror, and they’re currently still suffering and dying and in terrible need.”
Following the scorching testimony from Stewart, Alvarez and others, the House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to extend the compensation fund. The bill must still be approved by the full House of Representatives, where support for the measure is overwhelming. But its status in the Senate is less certain.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has implored McConnell to bring the bill to a vote expeditiously after it passes the House.
“We will reach the point soon, most likely this year, when more will have died from 9/11-related illnesses than on 9/11 itself,” Schumer said June 12. “I say to Leader McConnell: This is not politics. This is not a game. These are our heroes, American heroes, who are suffering and need our help . . . I am imploring, pleading, even begging to Leader McConnell to put the bill on the floor immediately after it passes the House.”
Alvarez on Thursday called reauthorizing the funding “a matter of decency” — especially when firefighters, police officers and other first responders who rushed into Ground Zero on 9/11 were led to believe the air was safe.
“I’m nobody special; I did what all the others guys did, and now we’re paying the price for it,” Alvarez said Thursday. He added, “We did the right thing by going down there; now it’s the government’s turn to do right by us.”
Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.