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The Long-Term Health Effects Of 9/11: Children Remember Their First-Responder Fathers

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As we've been saying, September 11 was one day, but the effects lasted much longer. That was unquestionably true of first responders and their loved ones. That's what we want to focus on now. For that, we're joined by Robert Tilearcio Jr. His father, Robert Sr., was a firefighter with Engine 266 in Rockaway Beach. He died in 2017 of brain cancer related to September 11. Robert Jr. is now also a firefighter and works at a law firm dealing with 9/11 victim compensation.

Robert, thank you so much for joining us.

ROBERT TILEARCIO JR: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Also with us is Victoria Estreicher. Her father, Lieutenant Richard Estreicher, was a member of the New York Fire Department and died in 2019 of 9/11-related illness. She co-founded the Live Rich Foundation with her sister, which supports first responders suffering from 9/11-related illnesses.

Victoria, welcome to you as well.

VICTORIA ESTREICHER: Thank you.

MARTIN: And I'm so sorry for both of your losses. It's hard to think about that, that you've kind of lived without them for so long. But I want to bring them back. And, Victoria, I just want to ask you to start by telling us about your dad.

ESTREICHER: Yeah, I would love to. So my dad was a girl dad, to say the least. He was the kind of dad to take his shirt off his back for anyone. He was also a Marine, so he was loyal. And there's a saying that goes for a Marine that there's no better friend, no worst enemy. And I think that's just so true. He loved to help people, and he lit up a room. And he knew how to make everyone laugh and lighten the mood. So having - no longer having him here anymore is just a big loss, especially because there's this idea that he was on borrowed time for 18 years. So, you know, it's definitely hard to come to terms with the fact that 9/11 caught up to him after all this time.

MARTIN: You say he was a storyteller. I don't know what it is about firefighters, but I've never met a firefighter...

ESTREICHER: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Who couldn't tell a story.

ESTREICHER: Totally.

MARTIN: I wonder why that is.

ESTREICHER: (Laughter).

TILEARCIO: It's the kitchen table.

MARTIN: It's a kitchen table. So, Robert, tell me about your dad, if you would.

TILEARCIO: Yeah. So, I mean, my father was a firefighter. He had went down to ground zero on 9/11 as he was working the nine by - the daytime shift that day and then, you know, was down there in the months after and digging in the rubble, as many guys were and you know, was diagnosed with brain cancer in the spring of 2015. You know, I just never thought that my father, you know, was going to pass from something like this.

MARTIN: You were both pretty little...

ESTREICHER: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...When 9/11 happened. Victoria, how - you couldn't have been - what? - more than 4 or 5.

ESTREICHER: Yeah, I was 4 turning 5.

MARTIN: Do you remember anything about that day?

ESTREICHER: Yeah. I remember being in kindergarten and, all of a sudden, like, barely an hour through school, my mom pulled out me and my sister. And we went home, and I just see the Twin Towers, like, up in flames. I had this, like, little '90s television set, had the antennas on it and everything still. And we didn't know whether my dad was going to be responding because, you know, cell service wasn't working. So we just sat and prayed and hoped that he would come home. We didn't know what was going to happen. No one knew what was going on.

MARTIN: Wow. Robert, what about you? You had to have been little yourself, but do you remember anything about that day?

TILEARCIO: Yeah, I mean, I was in seventh grade at the time. I was around 11 years old. And a lot of the teachers that time had it on the TV in the classrooms that we were in. So kind of after the towers fell, they had brought us into the auditorium and told us what was happening, kind of, like, briefed us and if anyone had any parents that worked down there that were first responders or something. They - I remember they pulled a few people to the side so that they can call their families.

And my - I eventually got home, and my mom told me that my dad had called her to let her know that he was safe after the towers had fell. Someone - he had called her from a - you know, like, a firehouse phone somewhere.

MARTIN: One of the things we wanted to talk about was the fact that this whole event affected people's lives long after the day itself. I know, Victoria, you've been writing about this. I mean, you started a blog. You were writing about your father. And you wrote that even though he came home all in one piece that day, I know he left a huge part of him at the World Trade Center. Would you talk a little bit more about that? Like, when did you start to realize that that was the case?

ESTREICHER: You know, he was very scared of getting sick because he had friends after the fact get 9/11-related cancer. And I don't think he was ever the same person. And I'm kind of struggling with that. Like, who was my dad on 9/10/2001 versus 9/12/2001? I just - I don't know because I'm - I was so little. It never stopped him from, like, being a great dad or anything like that. But I just think, like, the mental effects of, like, losing friends who he was, you know, friends with over 10 years - and, you know, I couldn't imagine losing, like, all my friends like that in one day - and the survivor's guilt I think got to him more than anything. It was just really difficult in that sense.

MARTIN: Robert, what about you? How did your dad deal with the aftermath of 9/11? Was it something that was talked about in your home?

TILEARCIO: Yeah, I mean, I'm definitely on the same page as Victoria in the sense that, like, it's - mentally, everyone was changed afterwards after seeing stuff down there that, you know, not everyone's prepared for. You're a first responder, but not everyone's prepared from picking out body parts from a pit. You know what I mean? It's not something you ever bounce back from. And quite frankly, it's not something that anyone ever talks about. It's not something that someone will want to share with their family or their friends. It's not even a conversation topic to put it to you that way. It's just the PTSD, you know?

But at the same time, it affects everyone differently. So some people are affected in, you know, other ways that others are not. And some can be triggered just by hearing a plane overhead or just by hearing, you know, some metal crunching or something like that.

MARTIN: Well, we're in a moment where, you know, the country and probably other parts of the world are thinking about 9/11 and thinking about you and thinking about all those who lost loved ones. And what are you thinking about this weekend? Victoria, do you want to start?

ESTREICHER: Yeah, I'm thinking about just that term, never forget. Twenty years ago, it seems like a long time. But for many of us, because of our losses that we've suffered from and those people that we aren't going to get back, you know, that day is just as hard if not harder than it was 20 years ago.

MARTIN: Rob, what are you thinking about this weekend? Or what are you going to be thinking about this weekend?

TILEARCIO: I mean, I'm definitely going to be thinking about my father. And, you know, I'll be down by the World Trade Center, along with being at St. Patrick's Cathedral. They have a memorial service for people that passed on that day or in the years afterwards related to 9/11.

Yeah, it's something that we can't forget, you know? I mean, for the people that have passed after 9/11, we should realize that that air was not safe to breathe in, even though they'd probably do it again if they had to because they lost 343 firemen that day. And you can't just leave your brothers behind. Yeah, the asbestos, lead and pulverized glass definitely caught up to them many years later. So I'll just be thinking of, you know, how our followers were heroes that day and did what they had to do.

MARTIN: That was Robert Tilearcio Jr. and Victoria Estreicher remembering their fathers, two firefighters who died of 9/11-related illnesses. Robert, Victoria, thank you so much for talking to us. I'm still, again, so sorry for your losses, but I'm so grateful that you're willing to share the memories of your fathers with us.

TILEARCIO: Thanks for having me.

ESTREICHER: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAX RICHTER'S "VLADIMIR'S BLUES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.