Among the countless individuals who responded at Ground Zero on that fateful day 10 years ago was Rafael Hernandez, a firefighter in his native Mexico who had come to this country two years earlier in search of a better life for himself and his three young children back home.
When he died at the age of 49 on Sept. 25, a result, it is generally believed, of respiratory failure due to complications from exposure to toxic dust at the site, he left a void that many of his acquaintances agree will be very hard to fill.
“We have been like brothers — not friends — brothers” said Jaime Munevar, 55, with whom Hernandez shared an apartment in East Elmhurst.
Speaking in Spanish, Colombian native Munevar explained that he and Hernandez “have been hungry together. One time we searched our pockets. We each came up with two quarters. We put our dollar together and bought a loaf of bread. We shared it. That’s what we ate that day.”
The two men met for the first time as volunteers at Ground Zero. Months later, at a reunion of 9/11 workers, Hernandez happened to overhear Munevar discussing paperwork that responders had to complete. Hernandez approached him, offering to lend a hand, and they soon recalled their prior encounter.
“We shook hands and thus began our brotherhood,” Munevar said. After that, “We were inseparable. We always talked about what we wanted in life. He always wanted to go back to Mexico and tell his children he was sorry for leaving them alone.”
In recent times, when Hernandez became ill, it was Munevar who brought him his medicine. Now, he said, “It’s hard for me. It’s an emptiness I feel.”
In the community, Hernandez is seen by many as a hero, not just for having saved the life of a pregnant woman he carried to safety at Ground Zero, but for his advocacy on behalf of the Hispanic clean-up workers and immigrants.
According to Charles Ober, an officer on the board of directors of the Queens Pride House, it is partly because of Hernandez that the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010 is now federal legislation.
Named after the first NYPD officer whose death was attributed to exposure at the site, the law provides health monitoring and financial aid to sick 9/11 workers. The law was enacted by President Obama in January.
For the past year and a half, Ober said, the Queens Pride House has served as the regular meeting place for members of the Borders of Hope 9/11 support group, which Hernandez co-coordinated. Here counseling is made available to Hispanics who helped clean up Ground Zero.
Rosa Bramble Weed, a clinical social worker familiar with Hernandez and his work, said, “His spirit of serving was contagious. He provided people with a sense that things would be better in the future. His perseverance kept the group together.
“He left two families, in Mexico and all his ‘companeros’ here,” Weed said.
An estimated 100 people attended the wake in Corona on Sept. 29, including members of the Mexican consulate.
A fund has been established to help support Hernandez’s children, now in their teens. To donate, send a check to the Rafael Hernandez Memorial Fund — Queens Pride House, and mail it to The Rafael Hernandez Family Fund, c/o Queens Pride House, PO Box 770834, Woodside, NY 11377.