Former New York firefighter
recalls twin towers attack

By Monroe Roark
Times Correspondent

As the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks looms this weekend, for one McDonough resident the death toll continues to grow.

The National September 11 Memorial is a tribute of remembrance and honor to the nearly 3,000 people killed in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 Special photo

Sterling Alves, a retired New York City firefighter who relocated to Henry County a decade ago, noted last week in an interview with the Times that the number of deaths from illnesses related to the cleanup at Ground Zero will eventually surpass the more than 3,000 who died in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. As of 2014, nearly 2,500 rescue workers and civilians had succumbed to cancer-related illnesses, he said.

Alves was diagnosed in 2007 with a rare form of leukemia that is now in remission. That was a year after he moved to McDonough, having retired in 2003 from the FDNY where he had worked since 1979.

Ironically, just before joining the fire department Alves worked as a busboy and waiter at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 107th floor of the first tower of the World Trade Center. He plans to be back in New York this weekend as a number of events are planned to mark the anniversary of 9/11.

The twin towers were built in the early 1970s with asbestos and little or no regulations regarding its use, Alves said. That has likely been the primary contributor to the current health situation among those involved in the rescue and cleanup.

According to an Aug. 2015 story in the New York Post, 3,700 responders and others are afflicted with 9/11-linked cancers. That number includes 1,100 FDNY members, more than 2,100 police and other responders, as well as more than 400 survivors such as downtown workers and residents. More than 2,100 firefighters and EMS personnel have retired on disability with WTC-related illnesses, and 109 FDNY responders have died from those illnesses.

Alves worked in special operations at his firehouse in Brooklyn and his shift ended on a Monday morning about 24 hours before the attacks. As was the case with nearly all residents of Brooklyn and Staten Island, he could see the World Trade Center from his home.

All FDNY units were called in when the first tower was hit, and six members of his unit died that day. When all personnel were recalled that morning, he and some of his coworkers reached the site a few minutes after the first tower collapsed but were on hand to witness the second one.

“Everybody has a story” about that day Alves said. As he drove from his home in Brooklyn to his firehouse so he and his colleagues could make their way into Manhattan, he passed many fire engines and trucks already on their way to the site. “None of them survived,” he said.

During much of his career as a firefighter Alves coached high school football, and in 2000 he became head coach of the FDNY football team. Because of his involvement and his lengthy career he personally knew more than 150 of the 343 FDNY personnel who died when the towers collapsed.

In the years that followed the death continued to rise due to cancer and lung issues resulting from what many have called “World Trade Center cough.” Several different cancers related to the lungs have surfaced in first responders and survivors.

“It’s kind of sad because you hear bad news all the time,” Alves said. “The air quality was so bad for so long afterward. I’m sure some civilians living nearby go sick as well.”