MIAMI, Fla. – After the World Trade Center was attacked on 9/11, first responders spent months at Ground Zero and they were joined by volunteers, people whose jobs were not to run toward the danger, but who chose to go and help however they could anyway.
Now, one of those volunteers is fighting for his life in South Florida.
“I thought I was still a tough guy, but 9/11 humbled my whole life,” says William Cantres who volunteered at Ground Zero. “You could see peoples belongings as they just got into work and they took their jackets off and they went to go get coffee.”
On Sept. 11, 2001, Cantres was working as an electrician in New York City.
He heard about the first plane hitting the twin towers and then says he watched with his own eyes as the second plane hit.
“It’s something I’ll never forget as long as I live,” says Cantres.
Willie, as his loved ones call him, says he immediately felt a pull to go help and rushed to Ground Zero, where he would spend the next 6 months working on the pile.
“I went there to assist more hands on deck. Better chance of finding survivors.” After you did a couple of hours on the pile, you were soaking wet and you . . . we smelled like fire and smoke.”
But Cantres, like many others who inhaled the dust eventually developed major health issues and wasn’t able to continue working or living his life as he used to.
“He was requiring oxygen. He had a condition called ‘sarcoidosis.’ He ended up developing a more advanced type of sarcoidosis and that’s why he was in need of a lung transplant,” according to Dr. Tiago Machuca of Jackson Health.
Machuca is the director of the Lung Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital. He began working with Cantres several years ago.
Finally, in July of 2022, Cantres received a double lung transplant and a glimmer of hope for returning to his normal life.
But then, another bad break. During his post-op treatment, doctors found Cantres had developed throat cancer, and is now going through difficult radiation treatments.
“I’ve been in and out of hospitals; I’ve lived more in a hospital than I have at home,” he says.
Dr. Neeraj Sinha, a transplant pulmonologist at Jackson Health, says the radiation treatments are five times a week for seven weeks in a row. “The radiation treatment causes irritation in the throat and he gets bad sore throat from that. I remain very optimistic that the treatment regimen he has meticulously and bravely gone through will take care of the cancer,” Sinha says, adding that the incidence of sarcoidosis went up about “5 or 6 times” in the New York City population compared to previous years.
Doctors said his situation is delicate, but that Cantres is a fighter and they believe he’ll push through this test too.
“I have to. I have a grandson. I want to be able to throw a ball with him and try to make him a man, a good man,” Cantres says.
Machuca says helping Cantres is something that is also humbling. “For us, it is very touching, for us it is an honor to help a person who so selflessly put himself in that situation and never hesitated, the country needed him so he was there.”
Cantres has not been able to work because of the sarcoidois and, of course, now even more so because of that cancer diagnosis.
If you’d like to help Cantres, there is a gofundme set up.