On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Robert Alexander and his father, Raymond, both had the day off – until two airliners crashed into the World Trade Center towers.
Raymond Alexander, a New York City firefighter, immediately reported to his firehouse in the Bronx as his son, a New York Police Department officer, headed to his precinct in East Harlem. Then, along with thousands of first responders, the father and son rushed to Lower Manhattan, where ash and debris rained onto the streets.
For days, they scoured the toxic rubble at Ground Zero. Robert desperately searched for his best friend, one of the 343 firefighters killed on the deadliest day in history for the department. And for many weeks, both Robert and Raymond Alexander combed through human remains at Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island.
The pair survived the terror of 9/11, and the days that followed strengthened their already close bond. Months after the attacks, Robert Alexander followed his father’s and his grandfather’s lead and left the police force to join the New York Fire Department, later becoming a marine engineer.
But their service in the city’s Ground Zero recovery would take a deadly toll.
In November 2016, Raymond Alexander died at the age of 76 after battling seven different types of cancer over 13 years, a disease his family says was linked to his rescue and recovery work after the 9/11 attacks. On Monday, less than a year later, his son Robert, 43, died of brain cancer, also related to toxin exposure at Ground Zero, his family said. They had no family history of cancer, relatives told The Washington Post, and both men lived healthy lifestyles.
Robert Alexander’s death marked the first time since Sept. 11, 2001, in which the 9/11 attacks “have claimed the lives of two generations in a single family,” Gerard Fitzgerald, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, wrote in a statement.
Nearly 16 years after the terrorist attacks, 142 firefighters and fire officers have died due to 9/11-related illnesses, according to the association. Scores of firefighters, police officers, recovery workers and survivors continue to suffer from ailments linked to inhaling toxins amid the rubble.
For the Alexander family, the deaths marked an end to many years of anguish endured by both men. They were described by relatives as physically capable and “selfless” firefighters accustomed to prioritizing others’ well being above their own.
Robert Alexander’s brother, named Raymond like his father, said it was “horrible” to see his brother deteriorate and lose his ability to walk straight, speak clearly and do the things he loved – like cooking.
“I don’t view him as a person who has succumbed easily,” Raymond Alexander said. “In my world he’s one of the few people who could’ve, should’ve, would’ve beat it. But it’s brain cancer.”
The father’s cancer diagnosis came less than two years after the World Trade Center attacks, Raymond Alexander said. And during that time, Robert meticulously took care of his father almost every other day. “He went all in,” Raymond Alexander said.
Robert, who was an emergency medical technician before becoming a police officer, “knew more about taking care of people in emergency situations than anyone else,” his brother said. He shared his father’s medical care with his mother, Alice.
But in November 2014, exactly two years to the day before his father’s death, Robert was also diagnosed with cancer. What started as headaches turned out to be an inoperable brain tumor the size of a peanut. He retired from the fire department in October 2016, marking 80 continuous years of Alexanders in the department.
The two men were similar – quiet, humble men of few words. They hardly ever talked about the “baggage they carried,” Raymond Alexander said. “It’s like talking to a soldier about battlefield stuff.”
But their shared profession and illnesses gave them a “deeper connection than I could understand,” Raymond Alexander said.
“They’re the type of people that are just going to see something wrong and walk into it,” said Lori LaPonte, a cousin of Robert. “Because they’re protecting everyone behind them.”
Since he wasn’t married, his family said, Robert frequently worked overtime and on holidays to give his fellow firefighters more time with their families. He would work 60 to 70 hours a week. And when he wasn’t working, he would “come and go with the wind,” traveling between his home in the Bronx and his family’s home in western Massachusetts.
He became a “surrogate son,” for the parents of his best friend who died in the World Trade Center attacks, firefighter Sean Tallon. He also served as a mentor for his cousin’s sons, LaPonte said. One of them hopes to soon become a firefighter, to “carry on the legacy.”
In his final years, while battling cancer, Robert Alexander played an active role in campaigning for the renewal of federal legislation covering medical costs for those sickened by toxins on 9/11.
The legislation, known as the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, was named for a New York City detective whose death from respiratory issues was found to be connected to the World Trade Center attacks.
Doctors have linked nearly 70 kinds of cancer to Ground Zero, according to the World Trade Center Health Program. When the twin towers fell, so did a cloud of potential carcinogens, including asbestos, burning jet fuel and even mercury, experts say. Many survivors of the attacks have suffered from respiratory problems that became known as “the World Trade Center cough.”
Robert Alexander took numerous trips to Washington along with a coalition that included comedian Jon Stewart, to lobby Congress to renew benefits. In 2015, Congress extended the legislation for another 75 years.
In his public appearances, Robert Alexander would discuss his own illness to highlight the plight of scores of other survivors of the attacks. During a 2015 speech at a fire department gathering, he talked about how he was approaching the one year mark of his cancer diagnosis.
“I haven’t had a beer since that day, so that’s probably worse than having cancer itself,” he said, drawing laughs from the audience.
“A lot of firemen are suffering, a lot of cops are suffering,” he said, “all the time they’re receiving treatment for one cancer or the other … they’re living all over the country.”
Speaking to the New York Daily News around that time, he said, “every day there’s a doctor’s appointment.”
“But I’m doing all right with it,” he added. “There are a lot of other guys that are suffering worse than I am.”
Despite the suffering the recovery efforts caused him, he said: “I would do it again.”
“If you didn’t want to do the job, you wouldn’t become a cop or a firefighter in New York City,” he added. “I’m proud of being a firefighter now more than ever.”