Three retired FDNY members die of September 11th-related cancers within hours of each other

By Thomas Tracy, Bill Hutchinson New York Daily News

In a heartbreaking reminder that the September 11 attacks are still claiming lives, three retired FDNY firefighters died on the same day from cancer contracted at Ground Zero.

Retired Lt. Howard (Howie) Bischoff and retired firefighters Robert Leaver and Daniel Heglund all died on Monday after suffering the ravages of 9/11-related illnesses.

Making the news even more poignant is the fact that Leaver and Bischoff grew up together in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and were lifelong best friends.

“I felt at least Robert and Howie went off to heaven together,” Leaver’s widow, Rosaria, told the Daily News.

FDNY Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro called the triple loss “a painful reminder that, 13 years later, we continue to pay a terrible price for the Department’s heroic efforts on September 11th.”

The deaths raise the tragic toll to 92 firefighters who have succumbed to illnesses stemming from sifting through the rubble of the toppled towers in the desperate search to recover bodies.

The FDNY lost 343 firefighters on the day Al Qaeda terrorists flew hijacked planes into the twin lower Manhattan skyscrapers. A total of 2,753 [sic – 2,749 at the World Trade Center] people were killed in the attack.

Bischoff’s son called the deaths of the three heroes “unbelievable.”

“It’s really a tragedy. September 11th is something that’s affected so many people in so many ways it can never be forgotten,” Christian Bischoff, 17, told the News.

Bischoff, 58, who had worked at Ladder 149 in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, retired in May 2003 after 19 years as a member of the Bravest. He died from Stage 4 colon cancer.

“The biggest thing for him was his sense of community,” his grieving son said.

“He was a big part of his Brooklyn neighborhood in Park Slope and when he took the firefighter test and got in, he progressed and joined a much bigger brotherhood there,” the son said. “The bottom line for him was his sense of brotherhood. You can’t get that from any other job.”

He said his father was drawn to the FDNY back when his pals like Leaver were joining up.

“He taught me that anything worth doing is worth doing right,” Christian said of his dad.

Leaver, 56, retired in 2004 after 20 years of service to the FDNY. At the time he left the department, he worked at Engine Co. 202 in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. He was off work on the day of the 9/11 attacks, but grabbed his gear and raced toward the burning towers.

“He liked helping people, having a purpose,” Rosaria Leaver said of her husband. “He was brave and had a lot of courage.

“Even after he was first diagnosed with leukemia in 2003, he never wanted to be called a 9/11 victim,” the widow said. “He would say, ‘The innocent people in the towers were the victims. Don’t ever call me a victim. I was a first responder.’”

Lt. Heglund, who served 21 years in the FDNY, died one day before his 59th birthday from esophageal cancer that metastasized into his bones. An avid sportsman, Heglund retired in March 2003 and was diagnosed with cancer two years ago.

“He suffered. He’s been fighting. He put up a good fight,” Heglund’s brother, FDNY Capt. Paul Heglund, told the News.

He said he encouraged his brother to join the Bravest.

“I realized it was a great career and I got him to take the test,” Heglund recalled.

Heglund said he and his brother, whose last assignment was with Rescue 4 in Queens, responded to the 9/11 attacks and worked at Ground Zero for months afterwards.

“We would do 24 hours on and 24 hours off back then, but after working at the firehouse, you would go down there, work 10-12 hours and then go home to show your face,” he said. “Then it was back to the firehouse.”

He said his brother told him before he died that he had no regrets about working at Ground Zero.

“About 99.9% of us wouldn’t change anything that happened. Even after 9/11 and what went on afterwards, we were firemen,” he said. “That’s what we do.”

Funerals for Leaver and Heglund will be held on Friday. Leaver will be eulogized at St. Francis of Assisi Church in West Nyack. Heglund’s funeral will be at the Centerport Fire Department in Centerport, L.I.

Bischoff’s funeral will be on Saturday at St. Aloysisus Church in Jackson, N.J.

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