As It Happens

Detective who fought for 9/11 compensation up until his death was a 'warrior,' says friend

Just weeks before he died, Luis Alvarez told Congress: "Less than 24 hours from now, I will be serving my 69th round of chemotherapy. I should not be here with you, but you made me come."

Luis Alvarez died on Saturday from cancer that he linked to his time at Ground Zero

Retired New York Police Department detective and 9/11 responder Luis Alvarez died on Saturday. Weeks earlier, he testified during a House Judiciary Committee hearing funding for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

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Just weeks before Luis Alvarez died, the former NYPD detective who spent months at Ground Zero following the Sept. 11 attacks pleaded with Congress for better health benefits for first responders.

Alvarez died Saturday from colorectal cancer. He was diagnosed in 2016, and traced his illness to the three months he spent in the rubble of the World Trade Center's twin towers after the 2001 attacks

"I watched a warrior go out on the battlefield one last time and I'm so proud of my friend," John Feal told As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner. 

Feal, who helped remove the rubble from Ground Zero, met Alvarez through the FealGood Foundation, an organization he founded to advocate for emergency personnel. 

On June 11, a frail Alvarez appeared before Congress with former Daily Show host Jon Stewart to ask lawmakers to extend the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund, which is due to run out by December 2020. 

"Less than 24 hours from now, I will be serving my 69th round of chemotherapy," he told Congress.

"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."

The House judiciary committee voted unanimously to replenish the compensation fund that provides health benefits to police officers, firefighters and others who responded to the 2001 attacks. The full House is set to vote this month. 

Final plea from his deathbed

Just days after his testimony, Alvarez was admitted to hospice. But even from his deathbed, he continued to call for Congress to help victims. 

"Most people when they know they're going to leave this world … they want to spend that with loved ones and friends and make final arrangements," Feal, who was with Alvarez that day in Congress, said. 

"Luis chose to help tens of thousands of people before he left this world," 

Former Daily show host Jon Stewart, right speaks to Alvarez, front left, and FealGood Foundation co-founder John Feal. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

Feal didn't meet Alvarez until he was already sick — something that is a regular occurrence over his last 15 years as an advocate for victims. Usually, he says he tries not to get close to the people he helps. 

But Alvarez was different. 

"He had that contagious personality and you could not help but love him," he said. 

Alvarez spent three months removing debris and searching for remains following the attacks. He is among the thousands of people who responded —  and who became sick. 

"We ate there, we slept there, we cried there," Feal said. "We were exposed 24/7 to those toxins." 

Earlier this year, the U.S. federal government slashed funding to those sick or dying from toxins released during the attack by more than half, after learning that the fund was set to run out. 

That led advocates and first responders — like Alvarez — to call for the funds to be replenished and for spending caps to be removed until 2089.

"This fund isn't a ticket to paradise. It's to provide our families with care," Alvarez told Congress. "You all said you would never forget. Well, I'm here to make sure that you don't."

Retired Fire Department of New York Lieutenant and 9/11 responder Michael O'Connelll, left, Feal, centre, and Stewart, right, applaud following testimony from Alvarez. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

The bill still needs to be approved by the House and Senate, something that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says could happen before the August recess. 

As for Feal, he says he will spend the next few days mourning the loss of his friend. Then, he'll be back banging down Washington's door to make sure the bill gets passed. 

"We're going to be with [Alvarez's] family, but we're going to pick up our swords and go back to D.C. the following week and we're going to keep the pressure on them," he said. 

"We're going to keep our foot on their necks and we're not going to let up until we get this done in Luis' name."

Alvarez's survivors include his wife, his three sons, his parents and three siblings.

The family said in a Facebook post that Alvarez touched many lives by sharing his battle with cancer.

"Thank you for giving us this time we have had with him, it was a blessing," the post said.

Written by Sarah Jackson with files from The Associated Press. Produced by Katie Geleff. 

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