Guest Phil Alvarez, director of 9/11 Outreach and Education for the law firm Hansen & Rosasco, shares how his brother fought to the end like the hero he was. Luis Alvarez was an NYPD detective who worked in the toxic ruins of the World Trade Center for months, not knowing a silent beast would stalk him for the rest of his life, and dying of cancer caused by the chemicals in the air and the rubble.
Before he died, Luis fought for every victim – past and future – of the terror attack, pressing Congress to pass a final, permanent victims’ fund, the “Never Forget the Heroes: James Zadroga, Ray Pfeifer, and Luis Alvarez Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act.”
This heartbreaking tale of determination is a testament to our everyday heroes and the advocates who never give up their fight to protect America’s workers. Take a moment to listen and reflect on the vital importance of worker protections.
Intro: This is Workers Comp Matters, hosted by Attorney Alan S. Pierce. The only Legal Talk Network program that focuses entirely on the people and the law in workers’ compensation cases. Nationally recognized trial attorney expert and author Alan S. Pierce is a leader, committed to making a difference when workers’ comp matters.
Alan S. Pierce: Well, hello again, and welcome to Workers Comp Matters. We’ve had two previous editions of this podcast focusing on the 20th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001. For our third and final show on the subject, we speak with a special guest who brings his own close and unique perspective. This is Alan Pierce and my co-host, Judson Pierce. On today’s show, we’re delighted to have Phil Alvarez as our guest.
Judson L. Pierce: Thank you, Alan. Phil Alvarez, joined the firm of Hansen & Rosasco, LLP in September of 2019 as the Director of Outreach and Education. Phil is the brother of the late Luis Alvarez, after whom the law never forget the heroes James Zadroga, Ray Pfeifer, and Luis Alvarez Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act was named. Before passage of the law in July of 2019, Phil and Luis made numerous trips to Washington, D.C. to advocate for the Permanent Authorization. Thank you so much for being with our audience here today, Phil.
Phil Alvarez: It’s an honor and a pleasure to see you guys and be with you guys again. Thank you very much on behalf of Hansen & Rosasco and the Alvarez family for having me on.
Alan S. Pierce: Phil, on our previous editions of Workers Comp Matters, we heard from both Ken Feinberg, the Special Master of the Victim Compensation Fund, along with Attorney Leo Boyle, who formed Trial Lawyers Care to provide pro bono legal services to the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but as we’ll learn today, the VCF did not end with the distribution of monies in a few years following of 2001. Health issues among survivors and first responders continued and continued to develop today, and we’d like for you to talk with us about the ongoing efforts now 20 years later, and where the fund is now and what difficulties you had in the interim.
Phil Alvarez: Thank you. Yeah. So, the fund has had a couple of reincarnations since the early onset of the fund and the initial payout in 2010, 2015, and 2019. The fund had to be refunded on all those dates by advocates going down to Washington, D.C. and begging for lack of a better word Congress and the Senate to make the fund available again as it ran out of money every time. Of course, my involvement and especially my brother’s involvement was the final one in 2019. My brother had been sick with colon liver cancer and metastasize, it was stage 4. He was diagnosed in 2016 and he was signed up for the World Trade Center Health Program and the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund, and this allowed him to get treatment in one of the best places here in New York, Memorial Sloan Kettering and he started a regimen of chemo every two weeks. After the initial shock of getting sick wore off, he started reaching out to fellow police officers. My brother was a detective with the NYPD and he had gone responded on 9/11 with his entire team, and he ended up staying approximately three months doing average of twelve-hour daily tours in the hopes, of course, at the beginning being a rescue operation, but it was soon learned that it would be a recovery mission.
Alan S. Pierce: As you know, Phil, the VCF was created relatively quickly after the 2001 attacks in the months following, and it was very active for the first two, three years. Ultimately paying out more than $7 billion to victims both who suffered injuries and deaths caused by those attacks, but first responders like your brother, who spent weeks or months at the site breathing in noxious air clouded with debris from the glass buildings, and maybe after New York and federal officials might have told them it was safe and been diagnosed with a variety of debilitating illnesses such as colon or liver cancer and other pulmonary cancers. Tell us a little bit about your brother and how it was determined that his medical problems were likely related to these exposures.
Phil Alvarez: As the World Trade Center Health Program started enrolling first responders and then adding residents, people that work in the exposure areas of Lower Manhattan, students that were there, certain diseases were listed as a certified disease caused by 9/11, and it had a presumption that if you can prove that you were down there, whether you were first responder, a resident, a student, or just worked down there all the time in New York financial area, and you got one of these certified diseases, that it would be a presumption based on latency, based on what science tells us. If you got it within five years of or after 9/11 that you would be certified and eligible for free health care and then compensation through the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund. Now, from the very onset, there were very few illnesses that were listed, not only is the World Trade Center Health Program a health program, it is also a study, it’s also a monitoring service for all these diseases. I can tell you, when my brother got sick in 2016, to the time he passed away in June of 2019, there was approximately seven or eight cancers that were added to the World Trade Center list of certified illness. They now covered close to 70, I think it’s about 68 or 69 cancers that they have found are related to the toxic substances that were at ground zero.
Alan S. Pierce: Phil it’s for our listeners, especially those who are familiar with workers’ compensation programs in general. The idea of presumptions, especially for police and/or fire in various jurisdictions around the country, are well known. There are presumptions for cardiac issues or pulmonary issues for firefighters in particular. So, it’s not unusual to find that the World Trade Center Health Fund also created these presumptions. Did these presumptions also aid families such as your brother’s family for establishing, let’s say, workers’ compensation benefits for also contracting these illnesses on the job? Or do they have to go through a more onerous task of establishing medically the causal connection?
Phil Alvarez: Well, my brother was a New York City police detective, and his process was pretty simple in the sense that he was already certified by the World Trade Center Health Program, and he filed for a disability retirement, a retroactive disability retirement from the New York City Police Department, and was able to have that because he was already a 9/11 certified first responder and his cancer was related to that. So, I can’t speak for other professions on the retirement and the pension systems, but for the most part, if it was in New York, if you were taking part in your job, whether it was rescue, or recovery, or construction that nature, and you are part of the World Trade Center Health Program, you will have that 9/11 certification, which most employers, at least for city and state will accept for a long-term retirement.
Judson L. Pierce: You and your brother were both in law enforcement in your previous backgrounds Luis was a NYPD bomb squad detective, and you were a detective in Suffolk County Police Department. How did you both become active in advocacy efforts?
Phil Alvarez: Well, it became a situation where, as a family, we were initially shocked with my brother’s diagnosis, you’re not supposed to get a call from your 50-year-old brother and little brother and hear stage 4 cancer. So, after the initial shock of the family being notified that Luis was sick, his mission became getting in touch with the guys that he had worked with 15 years prior. This again, this was in 2016, when we first got the news, and he didn’t know about how to go about that, as you can imagine, fifteen, sixteen years, people move, they change their phone numbers, change the address, retire, move out of state. All these things that we’re going through, through his mind. How do I get in touch with my team and telling tell them to enroll in the World Trade Center Health Program.
Go to their yearly physicals. Get checked out. Make sure they’re okay, and that was his initial mission. He was able to accomplish a lot of it, when he was directed to social media. He was directed to go on a Facebook group called Club 23, and the significance of the number 23 is the chat rooms sort of speak on Facebook was in memory of the 23 NYPD officers that died instantly when the towers fell. And he was told, “Hey, there’s a lot of guys there retired from the NYPD who were down at 9/11 at Ground Zero. You might be able to get in touch with your team and people you were down there with.” So, he started going on this chat room thinking that he’s talking to 200, 300 people that were retired from the NYPD, and basically was blogging and telling his story. Just telling, “Guys, hey, listen, it took fifteen years for this to catch up to me. I now have stage 4 cancer, do it for yourself, do it for your family. Just go get signed up with the World Trade Center Health Program. Go on your physicals every year and don’t let what happened to me happen to you. Try to get it early.” And sure enough, people started sending him messages, and we continue to get these messages after he passed away. It’s like because of him, they had gone and gotten checked out and they found a small spot on somebody’s lung that they were able to take care of, or a small prostate cancer that they were able to take care of before it became metastasized to different parts of the body, things of that nature. And those are the best messages we’ve ever gotten, and he was happy about.
The only thing that Luis did not realize is he wasn’t talking to 200 to 300 guys, he was talking to about 4,000 people. He didn’t know the size of the chat room. So, he caught a lot of attention every time, every two weeks he would go to Memorial Sloan-Kettering for a six-hour chemo treatment and he wasn’t a big TV guy. So he would get on his phone and blog about how his treatments were going. And again, reminding everybody how to do it. And chemo treatment became number five, chemo treatment became number 10, chemo treatment went up to, and he ended up having 69 chemo treatments over three years before he passed away. And he used to blog about it. This caught the attention towards the end of 2018. They got the devastating news that the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund was running out of money, and that they didn’t think it would make it through the year 2019.
Actually, the Victims Compensation Fund started awarding 50% of prior awards in the past just to try to spread out to as many victims and as many families, the awards. But when my brother found out about this, he was so angry. He was, “Why should I be taking care of? I’ve never had to make the decision between paying my Mortgage for my home, for my family, and going to pay for chemo treatment. I’ve never been had to do that. Why should somebody to get sick after me have to worry about things like that?” It made him angry.
Alan S. Pierce: So Phil as it became apparent that the fund was running out of money. What steps had to be taken and what role did you and your brother have after you’ve made contact with these folks on social media?
Phil Alvarez: So my brother’s post caught the attention of the FealGood Foundation which was led by John Feal and of course the comedian activist Jon Stewart, who for lack of a better term were just gorilla activist going down to Washington, knocking on doors of Congress and the Senate to try to get a bipartisan support for this bill. They asked Luis to come along and tell His story and Luis agreed, he was so angry when he heard that the fund was running out of money. He needed to be part of that, even though his cancer was progressing and he was getting weak and he asked me, “Would you like to come along? Could you drive me?” And I had just retired as a police officer and I told him, “Sure.”
Alan S. Pierce: Tell us about those hearings that took place in Washington. I think we were all transfixed before the news summary is in the news programs when John and your brother made very eloquent appeals to the committee. So perhaps you can walk us through that process.
Phil Alvarez: Okay, the FealGood Foundation and the gentlemen and ladies that had pressured and knocked on doors of Congress were invited to speak in a congressional hearing. It was decided my brother would be one of the speakers that day and would be a witness to what he had done and with the fund had done for himself and his family.
Alan S. Pierce: And he was pretty ill in that time.
Phil Alvarez: He was, he had just had 68 rounds of chemo. And as a matter of fact, we were due back in New York the day after from Washington, D.C. for his 69th.
Alan S. Pierce: What was the date of the congressional hearing, the year anyway?
Phil Alvarez: It was 2019. It was a June of 2019. I believe it was June 10.
Judson L. Pierce: Before the house committee Luis said “I will not stand by and watch as my friends with cancer from 9/11 like me are valued less than anyone else because of when they get sick, you made me come here today before my 69th round of chemo. I’m going to make sure that you never forget to take care of the 9/11 responders.” That quote struck me then and reading it again is just those words from him when he was going through what he was going through. Tell us a little bit more about the nature and soul of your brother and how he continued to find the strength to fight and help others.
Phil Alvarez: My brother in his three-year battle with cancer, met many people at Memorial Sloan-Kettering that was sick with 9/11 cancers. A lot of them being friends of his, old partners of his, and they used to laugh about it. But now thinking about it, they used to all plan their chemo for the same day so they can hang out with each other and have a good time. And that’s how bad it got to certain points and it dawned on my brother that people were going to continue to get sick. So, when he got to testify that day, he wanted to tell that story. He wanted to tell the story of having a family and at a young age being diagnosed with cancer because of the time that they spent down at Ground Zero.
Alan S. Pierce: Those of us, the watched the events unfold and kind of followed the cleanup we sort of tend to think that the main substances if you will, that people might have been exposed to who might be dust and debris, but tell us for the science part of it, the medical part of it, what other substances perhaps might not we be aware of that the folks that were right at Ground Zero, whether it was the day of the attacks on September 11 of the immediate aftermath, what were they exposed to that perhaps all of us might not be aware?
Phil Alvarez: We don’t have enough time in this podcast for me to go through a list of – Jimmy Zadroga, unfortunately, one of the detective James Zadroga of the NYPD, who’s one of the people listed on now the bills name along with my brother and Firefighter Ray Pfeiffer, when he passed away and they checked his lungs, he had glass, asbestos. Every kind of chemical you can think of that is toxic for a human being to ingest. Jimmy had it in his lungs and there’s no doubt in my mind, if you can imagine the things that are inside of a computer terminal, while it’s inside the computer terminal will never hurt you, but could you imagine that becoming in a second airborne dust that covered the entire lower portion of Manhattan and stay there for months, months, they were cleaning that stuff up.
Judson L. Pierce: That that was the odd part for me in trying to understand that it wasn’t until 2012 that the government determined that cancers could be compensated as part of the fund.
Phil Alvarez: That was part of the fight. It was part of the fight that government wanted to sweep all this under the rug, no pun intended. Just get done with it and they basically had to go down there and beg for this bill, 2010, 2015 and 2019. And as my brother said in the speech, “You made me come down here. We shouldn’t have to come down here.” And I was fortunate enough to be seated in the row behind them in the congressional meeting behind, John Feal and Jon Stewart.
And if I looked over my shoulder, they were guys in wheelchairs, guys on oxygen tanks. They were the walking wounded that took from their illness and from their time and Jon Stewart said it so eloquently in his speech, “You’re taking away the biggest commodity that these people have, time. Many of them didn’t have a lot of time left including my little brother but yet chose to be down there.”
Judson L. Pierce: Right. So what did the bill accomplished and when is the bill set to end which is far out from now thank goodness, but could you tell us a little bit about those two?
Phil Alvarez: Sure. I would be happy to. The bill that I proudly say has my brother’s name on it along with the other two gentlemen I spoke to is a permanent authorization, and it is through the year 2090. And the year 2090 is when the actuaries actually figured out that the latest human being could be alive that was alive in 2001. So, the bill is fully funded by the government through the year 2090.
Alan S. Pierce: Okay, and of course, in 2019, we have been living in a very partisan area especially in Washington, D.C. How bipartisan was either the committee and then getting this signed into law and signed by the executive?
Phil Alvarez: Once on board and that was the uphill battle to have bipartisan support for the bill, have people reaching across the aisle working together to fund a bill that makes sense for humanity. Not for republicans, not for Democrats, not for Conservatives, not the Liberals but for humanity. 2001 9/11 didn’t take from one party more than the other. So, that was the nice thing about it. They finally did come together and both in the Congressional vote and in the Senate vote, except for two people. 97 to 2 is the final vote in the senate which sent it on to the president to sign into law. It was pretty bipartisan all the way. It was nice to see and talk about now, it was nice to see in America come together like that to get something done for victims that needed it so bad.
Alan S. Pierce: And I think this is a good time to actually name the law again and I’d like to give you the privilege and honor of just telling our viewers what the name of this law is.
Phil Alvarez: Thank you. The name of the law is Remember the Heroes, James Zadroga, Ray Pfeifer, and Luis Alvarez Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.
Alan S. Pierce: And before we close, tell us the status of James Zadroga and Ray Pfeifer.
Phil Alvarez: Unfortunately, James Zadroga and Ray Pfeiffer like my brother have all passed away from 9/11 related cancers.
Alan S. Pierce: And your brother, you said the hearing was what? June 10th of 2019? When did your brother passed?
Phil Alvarez: June 29th of 2019.
Alan S. Pierce: Wow.
Phil Alvarez: And the bill was signed into law by the president exactly one month after he died. July 29, 2019.
Alan S. Pierce: Quite a story.
Judson L. Pierce: Yeah. I wanted to bring up one other thing before we close. Phil gave up something very, very important and precious to him and that story stuck with me and it may have convinced some final votes. Can you tell us a little bit about that before we end?
Phil Alvarez: Yes. Thanks for bringing that up. That was a special moment. Unfortunately, we got back from Washington, D.C. and we had to put him right into the hospital and within two days of being in the hospital, we were given the terrible news that his liver had shut down. There was nothing else that could be done. So, we moved Luis to a hospice close to home on Long Island, New York where the family can be with him and he was there for twelve days and he was very conscious. We were able to spend a lot of time with him but he still had Washington on his mind and he kept bugging me to make phone calls and see what was going on in Washington which I did. I called the guys from the FealGood Foundation to get reports. We were invited to the congressional vote and we knew it passed the congressional vote and it was now going to the Senate. Of course, the Senate at the time was a Republican controlled and the Senate Majority Leader was Mitch McConnell.
So when I told them that it was going to the Senate, Luis asked for a copy of his speech in front of congress in hospice. And on that copy, he wrote a letter to Mitch McConnell and he asked Mitch McConnell to have the Senate to do the right thing for the people that needed it. And he asked me to send that to guys that were going to meet with Mitch McConnell before the Senate vote and give them the letter but he also asked me to give them his police detective badge and really —
Alan S. Pierce: The Gold Shield.
Phil Alvarez: The Gold Shield and he said, he’ll know what that means. That was sent to Mitch McConnell and it was delivered to him personally by John Feal from the FealGood Foundation and he slid it across the table to him, a handwritten note from my brother with his Gold Shield and we asked him to do the right thing, and sure enough it passed 97 to 2 in the Senate.
Judson L. Pierce: Wow. Phil, I can’t tell you how grateful we are to have you join us and really sort of put all of this into a human context. I mean, we had two other folks on this series of podcasts Ken Feinberg and Leo Boyle, and you bring such an emotional point of view and human point of view to this story and you’re continuing to do this work and outreach to this day with your firm. So Hansen & Rosasco. So I thank you. I’m an amateur actor. I did a play called The Guys in 2003. It was written by Anne Nelson. It was all about a woman who is helping a fire department chief write eulogies for eight fallen firefighters. And one of the things that he said, Nick, the role I played and I did a very, very bad New York accent by the way. I’m from Boston so you can understand that. He said, “These guys, you wouldn’t believe these guys.” And that to me is what you and Luis and all the others who helped and helped us through this tragedy represent.
Phil Alvarez: Thank you so much for those kind words. I appreciate that.
Alan S. Pierce: So we want to thank you for sharing this story with our listeners and to those of you who do tune in to Workers Comp Matters, continue to monitor Legal Talk Network for our next show and enjoy the day and go out and make it a day that matters. Thank you and goodbye.
Outro: Thanks for listening to Workers’ Comp matters today on the Legal Talk Network hosted by Atty. Alan S. Pierce, where we try to make a difference in Workers’ Comp legal cases for people injured at work. Be sure to listen to other Workers Comp Matters shows on the Legal Talk Network. Your only choice for legal talk.