Robert “Rob” Serra’s first day as a New York City firefighter was Sept. 11, 2001. Having completed the FDNY training on Sept. 10, the 2001 Hobart graduate expected to have the day off.
On his way to try out for a FDNY hockey team, Serra crossed the Verrazano Bridge and saw the World Trade Center’s twin towers on fire. He immediately grabbed his gear and made his way downtown – where he checked in with the first “white helmet” he saw, an identifier of FDNY Fire Chiefs.
Despite having no experience, Serra says, “it never crossed my mind not to go.” The day changed his life forever.
“Pretty much as soon as I got down there, I started to bleed from my nose.”
Like thousands of first responders, emergency workers and civilians on Sept. 11, Serra suffers from illnesses as a result of exposure to toxic ash and debris on the day of the attacks and in the months following, when he worked at the Staten Island recovery site to search for the personal effects of victims. Having undergone surgery to remove nasal polyps, Serra now faces neurological damage– including neuropathy and fibromyalgia, which has led to intense bouts of shaking, nerve pain and trouble walking.
His subsequent illness and those of his colleagues’ motivated Serra to become a vocal advocate and organizer in support of the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, established in 2010 to expand health coverage and compensation to first-responders and individuals who developed Sept. 11-related health problems, and which ran out of funds to pay all filed and projected claims on Feb. 15, 2019.
“We knew the Victim Compensation Fund was not adequately funded, and we began organizing as early as 2015.” Serra says, in reference to the coalition of first-responders who began making monthly visits to lawmakers on Capitol Hill. “We never stopped working. And during that time, we dealt with a lot of loss.”
To bring attention to the health crisis affecting first-responders, and to amplify the voices of men and women who need care, Serra began telling his story to news outlets, including The New York Times, NBC, Fox News, ESPN, Washington Examiner, CBS and other NYC based publications.
“I don’t necessarily feel comfortable talking about my health, but I knew it was something I needed to do,” Serra says. “Fortunately, I was an English major at the Colleges and I was able to tell our story.”
In 2019, as the nation watched the unfolding testimony in support of the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund play out on television, Serra sat in the first row of the Capitol chamber.
“The two most pivotal moments came when people heard the testimonies of retired NYPD detective Luis Alvarez and Jon Stewart,” Serra says. After many years of loss and frustration, Serra says the advocacy of people like Stewart and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, as well as the attention and support of the public propelled the resolution through Congress.
On July 29, 2019, President Donald J. Trump signed into law the permanent authorization of Never Forget the Heroes: James Zadroga, Ray Pfeifer and Luis Alvarez.
Serra, a father of three and member of the Board of Directors of the Ray Pfeifer Foundation, continues to be an advocate for Sept. 11 first responders by helping to gather resources for medical needs not covered by insurance. This year, Serra celebrated his 40th birthday at a Ray Pfeifer Foundation fundraiser in his honor, as they raised money for a wheelchair accessible van that will transport Sept. 11 survivors to their medical visits.
This February, Serra was invited to attend the State of the Union Address of President Donald Trump by U.S. Congressman representing New York’s 11th District Max Rose.
In 2001, the HWS community lost three alumni in the attacks at the World Trade Center, all of whom worked for the financial services firm Cantor Fitzgerald: Andrew H. Golkin ’93, who majored in economics, was a member of the football team, Kappa Sigma, Inter-fraternity Council and the International Business Club; Scott W. Rohner ’01, who majored in economics and played basketball and football; and Michael J. Simon ’83, P’11, P’13, who majored in economics, was a member of Theta Delta Chi and played ice hockey, lacrosse, tennis and golf.
(This story was first published on Feb. 18, 2020. It was reposted on Sept. 11, 2020 to honor the victims of the attacks and the first-responders who served as firefighters, medics, caregivers, detectives and more).