NEW YORK — A former police detective who fought until his final days for the extension of health benefits for Sept. 11 responders was hailed as a hero Wednesday by family, fellow officers and political figures who pledged to advance his message.
"These heroes responded to calls for help. They did not hesitate; That's who they were and still are," Police Commissioner James O'Neill said at the funeral for Detective Luis Alvarez, 53. "He and they viewed their efforts as an obligation that they promised long ago to the people we serve."
Alvarez's life was "a testament to American heroism," New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said outside the Immaculate Conception Church.
For many of the mourners, the loss also was a deeply personal one.
"Before he became an American hero, he was mine," said Alvarez's son, David.
The Star-Spangled Banner played as hundreds of uniformed officers stood at attention outside and police helicopters soared overhead. Officers waited in formation as a hearse carrying Alvarez's flag-draped coffin slowly drove away.
Alvarez died Saturday after a three-year battle with colorectal cancer. He attributed his illness to the three months he spent digging through rubble at the World Trade Center's twin towers after the terrorist attack.
Researchers continue to study whether there is a link between cancer and toxins present during the cleanup.
In June, a frail Alvarez appeared before the House Judiciary Committee with former "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart to request the extension of the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund, which has been largely depleted. Stewart was among those at the service Wednesday.
"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."
O'Neill said more than 200 police who responded to 9/11 have died from serious illnesses in the years since the terrorist attacks.
"Tomorrow, that number could rise," he said. "In the years ahead, it surely will."
Alvarez's survivors include his parents, wife, three sons and three siblings.
On the night before he died, Alvarez "told me he had been walking, and walking, and walking," his sister Aida Lugo recalled.
When asked where he had been walking, she said, "My brother responded, 'I was walking to find first responders to make sure they get help.'"
"How we walk with the broken speaks louder than how we sit with the greatest," Lugo said.
Fighting for other first responders through the Victim Compensation Fund, Lugo said, became his "dying wish."
After Alvarez and Stewart's emotional testimony before Congress, the House Judiciary Committee voted in support of a bill that would extend funding through fiscal year 2090.
Lugo said her brother was grateful to hear of the committee's support. The bill awaits a full House and Senate vote. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, told advocates the chamber would work to vote on the bill by August.
"Luis could have spent his last days and weeks and hours with his family and loved ones," advocate John Feal said outside the church. "He chose to spend them making a difference. We're here to mourn today, but tomorrow we're back to fighting again."
Charles Cook, 79, a fellow 9/11 responder, attended the service.
"I'm sick," Cook said. "I still have cancer. They need to respect us, and they're not doing that right now."
Alvarez was born in Havana and raised in the New York City borough of Queens. He served in the Marines before joining the New York Police Department in 1990 and spent time in the narcotics division and the bomb squad.
"As one of my brother's beloved previous partners once shared with me, 'Louie was the quietest man I worked with but in the end he made the most noise,'" Lugo said.
The Rev. John Harrington cited the legacy Alvarez wanted to leave behind for his sons.
"'Never quit on yourself,'" the priest recalled Alvarez as saying. "'Your word is your bond.'"