The number of City of New York Fire Department workers who've died from World Trade Center-related illnesses reached a grim milestone over the weekend, equaling the number of responders killed on Sept. 11, 2001, a department official said.
FDNY Commissioner Laura Kavanagh announced the deaths of two fire department workers, EMT Hilda Vannata and retired firefighter Robert Fulco, as a result of the time they spent working in the "rescue and recovery at the World Trade Center," according to a statement posted on X, formerly Twitter.
Vannata died on Sept. 20 after a battle with cancer and Fulco died on Sept. 23 of pulmonary fibrosis, a chronic lung disease. Their deaths brought the number of FDNY responders who have died from 9/11-related illnesses to 343, the same number of FDNY workers killed on the day at Ground Zero, according to the department.
"We have long known this day was coming, yet its reality is astounding just the same," Kavanagh said in her statement, calling it a "somber, remarkable milestone."
"Our hearts break for the families of these members, and all who love them," she added.
Responders face elevated risk of cancer, research shows
On the day of the attacks, thousands of first responders went to the burning towers after they were struck by commercial airliners hijacked by terrorists. When the towers collapsed, thousands were killed.
In the months after, an estimated 91,000 people helped in the cleanup effort, exposing themselves to toxic fumes, smoke and chemicals, according to the City of New York.
A study published last year in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found elevated cancer risk among 69,102 rescue and recovery workers who responded to the World Trade Center, including police officers and firefighters. The most common forms of cancer identified were melanoma, leukemia, thyroid, tonsil, and prostate cancers.
In her statement, Kavanagh said 11,000 FDNY first responders suffer from World Trade Center-related diseases, including 3,500 who've been diagnosed with cancer.
"Our commitment to their service and sacrifice," she said, "must remain as unshakable for the next two decades as it has been for the last two."
'Everybody loved him'
Despite his rapidly declining health, Robert Fulco wanted to do everything. The former New York City firefighter, who cooked for his whole squad, wanted to go to every New York Rangers game, play with his grandchildren and whip up large dinners – a tradition he was well known for in his Brooklyn neighborhood.
"He was always trying to help and set up big parties, even when he wasn't in good shape," Kristine Fulco, one of his daughters, told USA TODAY. "That's just the type of person my father was."
In the late 2000s, Robert Fulco had began feeling affects from his time at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 and the weeks he spent on the clean up and recovery effort. But in the last four years or so, it quickly worsened following his diagnosis with the serious lung disease pulmonary fibrosis.
On Saturday, he died at his home, two weeks before his 50th wedding anniversary. He was 73.
Robert Fulco was enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Program, which provides free medical treatment to first responders and others directly affected by the attacks. In the program, he received "world-class" care from doctors he checked in with every month for years, his daughter said.
"We had 22 years with him after (9/11), and a lot of people didn't even get that far," Kristine Fulco said. "We're really grateful that we got to spend the time with him and enjoy most of it."
"He is going to be missed by a lot of people. Everybody loved him in the neighborhood," Kristine Fulco said. "What he gave me and my sister is something that I aspire to give my children ... that unconditional love."
EMS worker who died of cancer was the 'life of the party'
Vannata died of pancreatic cancer she developed after volunteering in the 9/11 recovery effort, according to her obituary. She was 67.
Born in Puerto Rico, she moved to New York as a young girl with her parents and four siblings. She eventually joined the FDNY as an EMT where she met her husband, John, a NYPD officer who would later become a sergeant.
In 1997 they got married and, four years later, they both volunteered to help in recovery efforts at Ground Zero, according to the obituary.
"She was known by all as a warm and caring person, always going out of her way to help anyone in need," the obituary states. "And, anyone who knew her, loved her."
"Many have said that Hilda was 'the life of the party' – a beloved wife, mother, daughter, sister, aunt, colleague, and friend," the obituary reads, adding: "She will forever be missed."
Federal officials push for more funding for affected 9/11 responders
In late July, the U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan amendment to fill in some of the funding gaps in the World Trade Center Health Program.
Congress in 2011 established the program, which covers health care over the lifespans of the exposed 120,000 responders and survivors spanning across all fifty states.
How many people died on 9/11?
The 9/11 attacks left 2,977 dead across New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, according to the 9/11 Memorial Museum. That total includes the 2,753 who died after the planes struck the Twin Towers, 184 people at the Pentagon and 40 people who died when Flight 93 crash-landed in Pennsylvania.
The 19 hijackers from the militant Islamic extremist group al-Qaeda also died.
Contributing: Clare Mulroy
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: FDNY deaths from 9/11-related illness equal number killed on Sept. 11