This week, as the nation grappled with parading neo-Nazis, Klu Klux Klansmen and other purveyors of hate, the FDNY said farewell to Ret. Firefighter Robert Alexander — the latest 9/11 first responder to die as a direct result of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
Christie Todd Whitman, then head of the Environmental Protection Agency, stood near Ground Zero back in 2001, as solemn work crews poured over the gruesome wreckage of the WTC, and declared that the toxic stew of lead, asbestos and other poisons present in the obliterated Twin Towers, did not pose health hazards.
Fast forward to today, and 142 firefighters and fire officers alone, have died as a result of 9-11-related illnesses. Thousands more — first responders and others alike — are currently battling various forms of cancer, lower- and upper-respiratory illnesses and severe gastroesophageal reflux diseases. Then there is the post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression that pose other serious health threats as well.
This year has been a particularly pernicious one for first responders, with 11 New York City firefighters passing away due to diseases directly related to the air they were forced to breathe at Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan.
Last year, a 9-11-related disease took the life of Alexander’s own father — FDNY Lt. Raymond Alexander Sr.
In May of 2016, Dr. Jacqueline Moline, VP Chair of Occupational Medicine for the World Trade Center Health Program, told LaborPress’ “Blue Collar Buzz” that “More diseases are now being covered” and that doctors were “constantly looking out for trends.”
The younger Alexander is being remembered this week as a tireless fighter who advocated for the successful reauthorization of the Zadroga Act in 2015, even as he battled the cancer that would eventually take his life.
“Bobby had a constant presence in Washington, DC during the re-authorization of Zadroga act,” Uniformed Firefighters Association President Gerard Fitzgerald said in a statement immediately following Alexander’s untimely death. “Even while battling his cancer, he would show up to rallies and events to highlight his sufferings.”
The Zadroga Act, the program named after late NYPD detective James Zadroga, and enacted to provide vital healthcare and monitoring to 9-11 first responders, was only renewed after a long, contentious fight in the US Congress.
Prior to its reauthorization in 2015, the New York City Council felt the need to pass a resolution calling on the new members of Congress to finally end all the political squabbling and back the act’s renewal.
Before that, a fed up Jake Lemonda, head of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, urged national lawmakers to “get a backbone.”
“The first responders continue to pay a terrible price for the work they did at Ground Zero,” James Zadroga’s father Joe, said at the time. “The only thing that these sick men and women did wrong was to believe the EPA’s pronouncement that ‘the air is safe.’”
Despite the chorus of “Never Forget” that went up in the dark days following the September 11th attacks, first responders in New York City have had to fight tooth and nail for the support they need in keeping firehouses open, securing pay raises, preserving pension benefits — a threat that the Uniformed Firefighters Association argues remains in effect should supporters of a New York State Constitutional Convention carry the day later this fall — and even procuring a second pair of boots for firefighters.
Despite all that, Fitzgerald was moved to remark earlier this week that “New York City and the country will never forget the sacrifices that Bobby, his father, and many more of our brave firefighters have made.”
The funeral for Ret. Firefighter Robert Alexander will take place this Saturday in Sheffield, Massachusetts.