Rob Serra was a 21-year-old rookie firefighter when he became a 9/11 first responder. He had graduated from firefighter academy just the day before.
“On the bus on the way there, I was pulling stickers off of my gear because it was brand new,” he tells Yahoo Life. “All of the guys were making fun of me. Then, a priest got on the bus and read us our last rites and everything stopped being fun.”
Serra says he saw the Twin Towers on fire as his bus drove over the Verrazano Bridge. “It was a lot to take in,” he says. “You could barely see it because there was a giant cloud of dust everywhere.”
Serra says he wore a paper mask, but it was difficult to breathe through. “It was just covered in the dust,” he recalls. “Your face had a ½ inch of paste on it. It was pretty clear right away that dust was bad.”
Serra’s nose started bleeding after an hour or two of work, and he says it hurt to breathe in the dust. “There were at least 160 toxins we now know of,” he says. “Thousands of gallons of jet fuel burning – it burned for 90 days. There were chemicals created that day.”
“We ate down there, we slept down there,” he says. “[The dust] went through our skin, through our eyes. It got into our bodies every which way.”
Serra struggled with his health soon after.
“I took my pre-hiring physical and my lung capacity was at 94%,” he says. “They sent us all for medicals after 9/11, and my lung capacity was down to 79%.” Serra’s breathing issues became so bad that he couldn’t breathe through his nose anymore.
“They did a scan of my head and they found dozens of polyps in my sinuses and nasal passages,” he says. That impacted his work. “I would breathe in the tiniest bit of smoke [and] I would instantly get sick,” he says.
Serra also developed neurologic issues. Among other things, was diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy, a condition that’s the result of damage to the nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord. Peripheral neuropathy often causes weakness, numbness, and pain, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Serra’s says his legs will go numb, and he’s had to rely on the use of a cane to walk. If he has to walk more than 1,000 feet, he needs to use a wheelchair or scooter.
Serra ended up having to retire from the FDNY early due to his health issues.
“I had always planned on doing at least 20 years, but I ended up retiring at 33,” he says.
Serra joined forces with other 9/11 first responders to lobby for a bill that would provide medical support for sick 9/11 first responders. The bill, called the “Never Forget the Heroes: James Zadroga, Ray Pfeifer, and Luis Alvarez Permanent Authorization of the September 11 Victim Compensation Act,” was finally signed in 2019 with the help of Jon Stewart.
Serra says there was a lot of emotional stress involved in lobbying. “Having to tell my 9/11 story, and listen to my friends’ 9/11 stories over and over…all the friends that had died, all the days I spent myself crying in pain,” he says.
He, along with six other firefighters, started the Ray Pfeifer Foundation, named after former New York City firefighter Ray Pfeifer, who was diagnosed with renal cancer after being a 9/11 first responder. The foundation is designed to help with medical bills that aren’t covered by law, and to quickly provide financial assistance to 9/11 first-responders. Pfeifer died in 2017 and “cared more about other people, so we felt compelled to carry on,” Serra says.
Now, Serra says, “it’s hard. My health is not good.” In addition to his physical issues, Serra says he struggles with emotional trauma and fears that he will develop cancer, like so many other 9/11 first responders. “The worst part is the worry. I have three little ones. I worry about what’s coming in the next two years, because I feel worse every day,” he says. “We’re at the tip of the iceberg, and it’s about to get worse for a lot of us.”