By Art Schwartz Hudson Reporter
A plaque to a hero went up in the North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue Firehouse on 16th Street in Union City on Saturday, Aug. 23. The plaque honors retired Battalion Chief Robert Agostini, who died on Aug. 20, 2013 from conditions sustained while working at ground zero after the terror attacks on 9/11/01.
“They didn’t all die on 9/11,” said Agostini’s sister, Connie, regarding victims of the terror attack. “They’re dying every day and people don’t realize it.”
Born in Jersey City, Robert Agostini was a 1977 graduate of Weehawken High School. He served initially as a fireman in Union City before regionalization combined the individual towns into North Hudson Regional.
“He was a fireman at heart, he went up the ranks,” said Scott Marione, president of the North Hudson Fire Officers Association. “He was a real hard worker, truly a role model to the guys, a brother, a leader.”
But Agostini also had his lighter side.
“He was a jokester,” said Marione. “He was a character. The stories go on and on. If you knew Aggie you could only feel two ways about him. Either really liked him… or you loved him.”
A few months ago, “the firemen celebrated their respect and loss by hosting the first annual Aggiepalooza,” said sister Connie. “A very large group of firemen met up with boats – my brother loved his boat and good old classic rock and roll – and with swimming, food and celebration.”
The plaque honoring Agostini was donated by friends and family. It was placed in the kitchen of the firehouse, “because he loved to be a fireman, he loved to cook in the kitchen, and they adored him,” said Connie.
About 50 people attended the ceremony in the firehouse. “What the firemen did is cook pounds and pounds of food,” said Connie. “We sat and ate and laughed instead of making it a downer. It was a very nice celebration.”
After effects of 9/11
“I went down to his house, and he kept the garage open.” Connie Agostini described the first time she saw her brother after his rescue work at ground zero. “Standing there was the full gear he had to wear. It had to weigh hundreds of pounds, and it was just covered with an eighth of an inch of this gray matter soot. It was just so ominous to see.”
“In retrospect you think of the pulverization of the buildings, the glass, the brick – that’s what was on his uniform,” she said.
And that was what the first responders were breathing as they cleared debris and searched the rubble for survivors. “He got sick and was treated at triage at the site for lung distress,” said Connie. “And he was never the same.”
“Lung disorders are apparently very common to people who were exposed on the site,” she continued. As for her brother, after 25 years as a fireman, “He had to retire because he could no longer breathe.”
Agostini was eventually diagnosed with lung cancer. He underwent years of treatment and was seen at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “They said there was nothing they could do,” said Connie.
“He had to have emergency brain surgery about 2-3 weeks before he passed,” she said. “He did survive but it came back immediately. He died from pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and ultimately brain cancer. It went systemic.”
The Zadroga Act
“My understanding is my brother was the first New Jersey responder that succumbed to late onset disease and used the Zadroga act,” said Connie.
President Obama signed into law the James L. Zadroga 9/11 Health & Compensation Act in early 2011. Named for a first responder who died as a direct result of conditions sustained while working at ground zero, it was designed to ensure that those affected by 9/11 receive monitoring and treatment services for 9/11-related health problems.
“He had to go before a panel of doctors to show that ultimately his pulmonary disease was a direct result from working the pile, trying to find bodies,” said Connie.
“They closed three towns and brought his hearse through,” said Connie about Agostini’s funeral in Asbury Park. “About 150 firemen were lined up on the street, with rescue trucks.”
Agostini’s mother, Concetta Malanka Agostini, passed away soon after her son. “I buried the both of them months apart,” said Connie. “My mom just couldn’t cope. She was a typical Italian mother. He was the sunshine of her life, her only son. She wasn’t sick; she didn’t have any specific medical ailments. She just did not really have a will to live. I would say she died from a broken heart.”
Agostini is survived by Susan, his wife of 25 years, his 16-year-old son Nico, and his 22-year-old daughter Alexandra.
Among the firemen gathered for the plaque dedication were other first responders who were on the scene.
“In the firehouse that day I met an officer who said he met the doctor who treated my brother,” remembered Connie. “I asked why, and he said he has the same issues as my brother.”