Hundreds of people gathered Wednesday to say goodbye to Luis Alvarez, the retired police officer who fought for continued health benefits for 9/11 first responders even as he was dying of cancer.
“Before he became an American hero, he was mine,” David Luis Alvarez, his firstborn son, told mourners at the funeral service, held at Immaculate Conception Church in Astoria, New York.
“In his last moments, I told him I loved him… I promised to be the man he inspired me to be.”
He recalled how his father — a former New York Police Department bomb squad detective — took much pride in his work, describing it as a calling.
Alvarez died Saturday, less than three weeks after testifying before Congress alongside Jon Stewart to urge lawmakers to reauthorize a fund to compensate victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He was 53. He is survived by his wife and three sons, ages 14, 19 and 29.
When terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Alvarez raced to the scene and spent weeks at Ground Zero looking for survivors and human remains. In 2016, Alvarez was diagnosed with colorectal cancer that had spread to his liver, one of thousands of cancer cases linked to the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
Strikingly gaunt, ashen and frail when he testified on June 11, he told lawmakers he was scheduled to receive his 69th round of chemotherapy the next day, but felt compelled to come.
“Chemo became his prison, often isolating him from the world,” his younger sister Aida Lugo said at the memorial service. Still, he continued the brutal regimen every two weeks to combat his biggest fear: “The fear of leaving three sons fatherless,” she said.
When he traveled to Washington despite being in bad shape, he made a difference, Lugo noted, adding one of his former police partners told her: “Luis was one of the quietest people I worked with, but he made the most noise.”
His 69th round of chemo, scheduled for June 12, never took place. As he was about to receive the treatment, the nurse noticed he was disoriented, Alvarez wrote on Facebook a few days later. Tests showed his liver had shut down because of the tumors. There was nothing else the doctors could do, so Alvarez started hospice care.
Two weeks after his testimony, a group of his fellow 9/11 first responders gave his badge to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
In his final days, Alvarez continued to urge lawmakers to reauthorize the 9/11 victims' fund.
"That's my ultimate goal, legacy, to have this bill passed so first responders have the coverage they need," Alvarez told WNBC. "I can still work from my bedside, I can still put the word out."
He worried about more people getting sick as time went on, noting it took many years for his cancer to develop following the 2001 terrorist attacks. Still, he had no regrets about working at Ground Zero.
Alvarez’s story and powerful testimony to help his fellow 9/11 first responders — showing up on Capitol Hill even as he was gravely ill — turned him into a national figure and prompted widespread messages of support.