By Jessica Easthope
Victoria Burton’s husband Mike Hankins was one-of-a-kind.
“Mike was a gentleman, he had a very corny sense of humor, he liked to make people smile and laugh, he dedicated himself to serving others, he’s always been a mentor and a coach,” Victoria said.
As 9/11 first responders, Mike and Victoria were given the horrific task of identifying human remains from Ground Zero — Mike for the FDNY, Victoria for the NYPD’s Crime Scene Unit. That’s where the two met.
“With all the chaos, all the destruction, all the death, I found my soulmate,” Victoria said.
After serving the city of New York as a fire marshal for 25 years, Mike retired. It wasn’t until years later he would develop Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) and severe sleep apnea related to his work at Ground Zero.
“He was certified with the GERD as being attributed to 9/11 but he was in the process of having the sleep apnea attributed to that also but he passed away before it was completed,” said Victoria.
In March, Mike was diagnosed with COVID-19 and after a nearly month-long battle with the virus he died on April 2. Mike was gone in an instant and Victoria wasn’t able to say goodbye.
“My head was spinning. I had just spoken to him hours before, I could not believe the turn this had taken,” Victoria said.
Like many 9/11 survivors and first responders, Mike was registered with the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund and like those who also suffered from 9/11-related health issues, Mike was more susceptible to the deadly effects of the coronavirus.
“Nobody could have ever foreseen this to deal with this pandemic that puts these same 9/11 survivors in a different category. It’s dangerous for all of us, but for these people even more so. It’s heart wrenching,” said Richard Alles, a retired FDNY Chief who now serves as the Director of 9/11 Community Services for Barasch & McGarry Law Firm.
Barasch and McGarry represents 9/11 survivors. The firm has lost nearly 100 clients to COVID-19 and its lawyers are now making claims that the loved ones they left behind are owed.
“The widow or the family member would be entitled to hundreds of thousands of dollars for his pain and suffering or if he was still working, hundreds of thousands of dollars for his lost income,” said Michael Barasch, Managing Partner of the firm.
But for Victoria, you can’t put a price on Mike’s life.
“I would take absolutely nothing just to have him back here, that’s how important he was to us,” she said. “You could give me millions, it doesn’t replace him. Nothing could replace him.’
The way Victoria’s paying tribute to her heroic husband this year on 9/11? She’s raising awareness about COVID-19.
“People need to protect themselves and by wearing their masks, they’re protecting other people as well,” she explained. “I just want other people to know this is not a joke and people are dying, I don’t want him to be forgotten about.’
Nineteen years later her heartbreak has doubled, but Victoria’s mission is to make sure we never forget.