Thousands gathered to mourn a former New York City police detective who spent his dying days pleading with Congress to extend benefits for his fellow 9/11 first responders at a funeral service in Queens Wednesday.
Family members, friends and uniformed officers, some of them in tears, stood at attention as two fire engines hoisted a huge American flag outside the Long Island funeral home where 53-year-old Luis Alvarez was remembered at a wake a day earlier. A hearse carrying the remains of the retired detective, who spent three months pulling people from the rubble after the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, rolled slowly underneath it as the somber procession to the memorial service at Immaculate Conception Church in Astoria got underway.
Alvarez died Saturday in a hospice center in Rockville Centre after a three-year battle with colorectal cancer. He attributed his illness to the three months he spent at ground zero in the aftermath of the terror attacks.
NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill, who briefly spoke at the service, urged all in attendance to remember who "Louie" was.
"On behalf of the entire New York City Police Department, I extend our most profound condolences," he said, calling Alvarez "an authentic man."
"Throughout his remarkable life, Lou just wanted to do what was right," O'Neill went on to say. "And he desperately wanted others, particularly those in position of great power, to follow suit."
Alvarez's younger sister also eulogized her brother, detailing how the family left communist Cuba for a better life in the United States.
"Little did my parents know that this single act of sacrifice would lay the groundwork for the man their son would become," she said. "A man who served, defended, protected until his last dying day."
Sharing anecdotes of growing up together and details of her brother's illustrious career serving others, Alvarez's sister also shared "a very personal experience the night before Louie's death."
"I woke up to my brother attempting to get out of bed," she tearfully said. "He was coughing. He was agitated. He told me he had been walking and walking and walking. He wanted to sit in the chair. I called for the nurse who assisted in settling him down...The nurse asked him where he had been walking. And, with David [his son] as my witness, my brother responded: 'I was walking to find first responders to make sure they get help.'"
Throughout Alvarez's funeral service the topic of his commitment to helping others and doing what is right was brought up time and time again.
"He always walked on the brave side of the line," Alvarez's oldest son, David, said at the service, calling him his "hero."
"I love you, dad," David said, fighting back tears. "I promise to continue walking on the brave side of the line. I promise to be the man you inspired me to be."
In June, a frail Alvarez appeared before the House Judiciary Committee with former "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart to request the extension of the compensation fund, which provides health benefits to Sept. 11 first responders and is largely depleted.
"I did not want to be anywhere else but ground zero when I was there," Alvarez said at the hearing. "Now the 9/11 illnesses have taken many of us, and we are all worried about our children, our spouses and our families and what happens if we are not here."
The day after he gave that emotional testimony, Alvarez’s liver shut down and doctors told him there was nothing more they could do to treat the cancer he got 16 years after saving anyone he could from the heaping piles death and destruction. The House Judiciary Committee later voted unanimously in support of a bill that would extend funding through fiscal year 2090.
The bill awaits a full House vote.
Alvarez gave his final interview to News 4's David Ushery. Just before his death, he spoke of first responders' rush to help terror victims -- without any thought about how their response could affect their own lives in the future.
“On 9/11 when we went in, we didn't ask the person lying on the ground whether they were Democrat or Republican or any affiliation,” said Alvarez. “We tried to save lives, and that's the way it should be.”
The former Marine and 20-year veteran of the NYPD never wanted the spotlight, but in recent weeks forced himself to speak out until his last breath — not for him, as he had said he and his family were covered.
It was for the others who went into the cloud of smoke and ash before and after him, to make sure they are taken care of.
“That’s my ultimate goal, legacy, is to have this bill passed so first responders have the coverage they need,” said Alvarez.
Alvarez, who is survived by his parents, his wife, three sons and three siblings, told News 4 from his hospice that he was “at peace” with everything because he was not in pain and could still “work from my bedside, I can still put the word out.”
And as for his family, Alvarez had a simple message for them: He just wanted to make sure they’re going to be okay.
“Let them know that dad did everything he could to help people. And I told ‘em: You start a job, you finish it. Your word is your bond, and be a man, always be a man about it. So my legacy to them is dad did his best. Never quit, no matter how hard things got. Dad never quit.”
Alvarez was born in Havana, Cuba, and raised in Queens. He served in the Marines before joining the NYPD in 1990, and spent time in the Narcotics Division and the Bomb Squad.
Mayor de Blasio tweeted Monday that he plans to give Alvarez a posthumous key to the city "as a symbol of our profound respect and gratitude for his service." De Blasio also paid his respects at a wake in Long Island on Tuesday.
In a statement after his death, Alvarez's family called him their "warrior" and told people to remember his words: "'Please take care of yourselves and each other.'"
NYPD Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea tweeted that Alvarez was "an inspiration, a warrior, a friend."