Diocesan News

Retired Cop Who Lost 9/11 First Responder to COVID-19 Shares Her Story

Victoria Burton holds up one of her favorite photos of her with her husband Michael Hankins. (Photo: Paula Katinas)

JAMAICA — The first Sept. 11 anniversary taking place during the era of COVID-19 has added poignancy for a retired cop from Queens who lost her first responder husband to the virus in April.

Victoria Burton’s husband, retired firefighter Michael Hankins, died on April 2 from COVID-19, years after contracting a severe case of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and sleep apnea from working on the recovery effort at the World Trade Center site in the months following the Sept. 11, 2001 attack.

GERD is one of the diseases recognized by the Sept. 11 Victims Compensation Fund as being an ailment caused by exposure to toxins at Ground Zero.

Hankins, who served in the FDNY for 25 years, survived years with complications from GERD only to die of COVID-19.

“It just doesn’t seem fair,” Burton said on Sept. 11 as she sat in the living room of the Jamaica home she shared with her husband.

Friday, Sept. 11 marked the 19th anniversary of the terror attack on America. Hankins’ death, along with the deaths of many other first responders, is a reminder that the effects of one of the darkest days in U.S. history are still being felt 19 years later.

First responders and people who lived and worked near the World Trade Center have developed cancers, respiratory ailments, and other illnesses over the years as a result of prolonged exposure to toxins at the World Trade Center site. Many have died.

But COVID-19 introduced a whole new danger to them because of their compromised immune systems.

“They were already weakened when COVID came along,” Burton told The Tablet.

Richard Alles, a retired FDNY chief who is now director of 9/11 Community Affairs for the law firm Barasch & McGarry, which represents many first responders, called COVID-19 “a hidden killer” of first responders because of their already weakened immune systems.

As soon as COVID-19 hit the U.S., Alles told his colleagues at the law firm, “We’re going to start losing clients.”

Michael Barasch, a partner at Barasch & McGarry, urged first responders and others to register for the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund “even if you are healthy,” to ensure health care coverage in the coming years.

Hankins was registered with the fund.

Burton’s mission, she said, is to “just keep moving” and to shed light on Michael’s story.

Her message: Take COVID-19 seriously. “This is not a hoax. This is not a joke. People are dying,” she said.

She described her husband as a warm, outgoing man who always gave back to the community. He loved young people and volunteered as a referee for football, basketball, lacrosse, and umpired at girls’ softball games.

Hankins was a mentor and an inspiration to others, his wife said. “What he did and how he lived made you want to be a better person,” she added.

While Sept. 11 has sad memories for Burton, it also has special memories too.

Burton met Hankins while both were working at the recovery effort at the WTC site in the months after 9/11.

Burton, a cop with the New York Police Department’s Crime Scene Unit, was part of a team tasked with recovering the remains of victims gathering evidence at the site. Hankins, who was a fire marshal, was also at Ground Zero. His job was to gather evidence.

The two met and a friendship began. 

“We started talking and we never stopped talking,” she smiled at the irony of her situation. “With all of the deaths, all of the chaos and the destruction, I found my soulmate.”

The couple got married in 2010.

Burton is organizing a scholarship fund in her husband’s name. She plans to award the scholarship on April 2, 2021 — the first anniversary of Hankins’ death.