NJ firefighter dies from 9/11-related cancer
Hackensack Firefighter Rich Kubler, 53, died from stage 4 liver cancer on Saturday after more than 20 years of service
NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.
A longtime Hackensack firefighter died Saturday morning from cancer contracted while helping fellow firefighters at Ground Zero after the Sept. 11 attacks, said friends, family and fire officials.
Early Saturday morning, Rich Kubler, 53, died from stage 4 liver cancer he contracted from his time responding to the 9/11 attacks, the Hackensack Fire Department announced. Serving on the Hackensack Fire Department for more than 20 years, Kubler retired early due to his illness last fall, said Rob Burgos, his longtime friend and fellow Hackensack firefighter.
Although Kubler had retired, his death will be considered a line-of-duty death, the fire department said. Kubler is survived by his wife Susan, daughter Lauren, both parents and several siblings, said Rob Kubler, his older brother.
Kubler started with the Hackensack Fire Department in January 1998, said Burgos, who joined the department the same day. The two became fast friends, going through nine weeks of training before being assigned to fire companies in the city, said Burgos. The two would intermittently work at the same fire companies, always preceding or following each other’s shifts, he said.
Burgos, who still serves as a Hackensack firefighter, recalls a friend who went to any lengths necessary to help those around him.
“Richie was the type of guy that if he had five bucks in his pocket, and you needed 10, he would give you his five and he would borrow five more so you would have 10,” said Burgos. “He was that type of guy. He was always willing to help. Always willing to offer himself for whatever you needed.”
Raised in Hasbrouck Heights, Kubler’s bravery and altruism were always clear growing up, Rob Kubler said. Along with his older brother, Rich Kubler would help care for their grandmother who had cancer, helping feed her and take her on walks, one grandson under either arm. One time, Kubler broke up a bar fight, disarming a man wielding a knife before using a submission hold to render him unconscious, his brother said.
Kubler was even thoughtful enough to roll up the assailant’s coat into a makeshift pillow and tuck it under his head, his brother remembered.
“He was a hero since practically 7 or 8 years old,” said Kubler, 56.
The urge to become a firefighter started in high school for Kubler, but grew from the innate desire to be of service, his older brother said. Along with serving on the Hackensack Fire Department, Kubler volunteered with the Hasbrouck Heights Fire Department, said Kubler.
On Sept. 11, 2001, when Kubler heard of the 9/11 attacks, he didn’t hesitate to rush to Ground Zero, ready to help any survivors and his fellow first responders, his brother said.
“He actually had a couple of our volunteer firemen tell him not go to 9/11 because they felt it was dangerous,” said Rob Kubler. “He and 11 or 12 other Hackensack firemen went anyway because they wanted to pull out survivors and hoped that there were New York firemen, policemen or victims that they could save.”
For years after volunteering to search for survivors amid the rubble, Kubler rushed into burning houses and worked at his family’s electric company Kubler Electric without missing a step, his brother and Burgos both said. It wasn’t until last October when he showed signs of slowing down, said Burgos.
In October, on what would be his last shift at the fire department, Kubler went home early after falling ill, recalled Burgos. Around that same time, Kubler called his older brother and told him to meet him at a hospital, fearing he had bronchitis, said Rob Kubler.
“He actually didn’t know anything from 9/11 all the way up until this past October,” said Kubler. “He was going 110%. Fighting fires. Helping people.”
After undergoing a slew of tests, Kubler was told the devastating news: he had stage 4 cancer and had just a few weeks left to live.
“It blew us away,” said Rob Kubler.
But Kubler pushed past his prognosis, and for the last few months of his life he lived the life he had dreamed of living, his brother and Burgos said. In keeping with his father’s passion - one he passed along to his son - Kubler found and bought a house in Maine where he would go boating, another one of his passions.
Kubler died just after 4 a.m. Saturday, surrounded by his family, said Burgos.
Burgos had always hoped to start his career as a firefighter alongside his friend and end it at the same time. Though those plans are now scuttled, Burgos will always remember the friend he could always count on.
“Richie had your back,” said Burgos. “Richie was an incredible firefighter.”
Kubler is one of thousands of first responders who volunteered at Ground Zero that have been diagnosed with pulmonary and respiratory diseases, along with other illnesses. He is the latest of hundreds that have died from inhaling toxic fumes from sifting through the rubble of the Twin Towers.
Last year, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill that made New Jersey first responders who volunteered at Ground Zero eligible for an accidental disability pension.
A church service is scheduled for Friday followed by a full line-of-duty death funeral procession Saturday, both in Maine, said Kubler and Burgos. Time and location have not yet been released.
©2020 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.