9/11 Miami Beach First Responder Fights Illness Decades Later

Sep 11, 2019

Miami Beach Fire Chief Virgil Fernandez has vivid memories of being a first responder at Ground Zero after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. 

Fernandez led the Florida Task Force 2 team of 74 firefighters, part of the FEMA Urban Search and Rescue team that barrelled into the rubble from the World Trade Center. 

“I remember going into vans that they would drive us in, people holding up signs with pictures of individuals saying, hey, this person was last seen on such-and-such a floor, please search for them,” he said. 

During a city of Miami Beach 9/11 Remembrance Ceremony, Fernandez spoke about the hundreds of police officers and firefighters who lost their lives ultimately to save thousands of others. Members of the Miami Beach Fire Department stood solemnly in front of the department’s fire stations and administration building and lowered the flag to half-staff at 8:46 AM, the time the first plane struck the north tower of the World Trade Center. 

Fernandez said that many first responders in his task force team, including himself, have been diagnosed with illnesses due to 9/11. 

“There have been probably half a dozen that have been diagnosed — we did have a member die in 2005 when we were still in the very incipient phase of trying to figure out what were the results of being exposed.” 

A new, bleak statistic from the New York Police Department also shows that more than 10 times the number of NYPD police officers have died in the nearly two decades since 9/11, compared to the number killed in the terrorist attack. 

Just in the NYPD, officials said 241 members have died of 9/11-related illnesses, and 23 died saving lives in the World Trade Center. 

In June, Jon Stewart, former host of “The Daily Show,” appeared in a tearful, emotional viral video in which he advocated for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund in a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing. 

The room was full of sick 9/11 first responders, but many members of the House didn’t even bother to show up. 

Stewart angrily called out Congress for their “callous indifference.” 

“I can’t help but think what an incredible metaphor this room is for the entire process that getting healthcare and benefits for 9/11 first responders has come to,” he said.

“Behind me, a filled room of 9/11 first responders, and in front of me, a nearly empty Congress.” 

Miami Beach firefighters line up with children from the Hebrew Academy of Greater Miami during a Sept. 11 Remembrance Ceremony on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019.
Credit Lily Oppenheimer / WLRN

A month later, President Trump signed the compensation bill that authorized over $10 billion dollars to fund death and illness claims related to 9/11 over the next 10 years. More funds will continue until 2090, covering 9/11 responders for the rest of their lives. 

“Fortunately our country has stepped up, sometimes people would say grudgingly, but it has provided the medical attention that not only we need, but, quite frankly, we deserve,” Fernandez said. 

At the end of the remembrance ceremony, dozens of children from the Hebrew Academy of Greater Miami brought small white bags full of ‘Lifesavers’ candies to give to the firefighters. 

This, Fernandez said, brought him back over a decade to Ground Zero, and reminded him that there were good memories, not just horrific ones. 

“One of the nights we were there, we were walking around. There was a table full of white bags, kids had drawn pictures on them — inside of them was a Band-Aid and a Life Saver,” he said. 

“And it said, if you get hurt, here’s a Life Saver and a Band-Aid for you. So, all the destruction and everything that was there, there was still a lot of good will.” 

The Jewish National Fund and the Israeli Consulate in Miami also awarded Fernandez and the department a plaque commemorating all responders who lost their lives Sept. 11, 2001.