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Meteorologist Steve Villanueva remembers his firefighter brother who died saving lives on 9/11

'People loved him,' Villanueva says
Posted at 6:00 PM, Sep 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-10 21:51:35-04

WELLINGTON, Fla. — Twenty years ago, lives changed forever for thousands of Americans. Some families lost their loved ones that day, including a member of the WPTV NewsChannel 5.

First Alert Weather meteorologist Steve Villanueva remembers what happened that day and the hero he lost.

Steve's brother, Sergio Gabriel Villanueva, was born July 4, 1968, in Argentina and moved to the states as a toddler. He was three-and-a-half years older than Steve.

Steve Villanueva and brother.PNG

"We shared a bedroom until I was 25, so we were very close," Steve said. "We had bunk beds for most of our childhood. We were very close, all three of us, my sister included."

His name is etched into the 9/11 memorial in Wellington with a fire shield by it. Sergio Villanueva was a heroic firefighter who lost his life 20 years ago, when he rushed into the South Tower to try to save lives on Sept. 11.

Steve, his mother, sister and Sergio's fiancée plan to attend a remembrance ceremony in New York City.

"I'm trying to think about what my emotional state will be when I am down there, down at the World Trade Center site," he said. "On my way to work today, I was trying to figure out how this conversation was going to go and just got emotional, teary-eyed, so I can feel it starting to come on."

He said even 20 years later, that day is still very fresh in his mind.

"I called my mom and I'm like, 'He's fine. Don't worry about it. He's in Brooklyn. Don't get all upset right now,' and then later that evening, that's when I found out he was -- that he was unaccounted for," Steve said. "They had a list of the 343 people that were missing. When my mother told me, my body went to Jell-O, and I collapsed on the floor and started sobbing and sobbing and sobbing."

Shortly after, the Villanueva family was given false hope when they were told Sergio was not on the unaccounted list. But it turned out that was incorrect information and his name was under the clip of the clipboard.

"They all went in there to try to help as many people get out of the building as possible," Steve reflected. "Eventually, we figured out that they went into the South Tower, so they didn't get high into the building. They were somewhere in the teens or the 20th floor. That's where they were when the tower collapsed."

Steve Villanueva wipes away tear while speaking about his brother
Steve Villanueva wipes away a tear while speaking about his brother, who died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Sergio was engaged at the time and was supposed to be married right after Sept. 11, 2001.

Sergio Villanueva proposes

"She's still family," he said.

Steve reflected on life, calling it a series of twists and turns. He spoke about a photograph taken decades ago.

"My mom and my brother, who was tiny, maybe 2 years old at the time, with the World Trade Center going up, so it was only steel and beams while it was being constructed," he said. "My mother, who was new to America, just got here."

Steve Villanueva's mother with Sergio in front of incomplete World Trade Center

That very same steel is now more than 1,000 miles away from New York. Sergio's mother, would-be bride, sister, brother and their families all eventually moved to Florida.

"Your life changes so much when something like this happens, because if he were alive, who knows where I would be," Steve said. "Because he passed away, I moved back to New York right away, I met Noelle, married Noelle, moved to Florida."

Steve Villanueva family photo hanging on wall
This family photo of Steve Villanueva and his brother hangs on the wall of his home.

Steve said the one thing that hurts the most is that his kids and his sister's kids don't know Sergio.

"They hear about him," he said. "They see pictures, but they don't know what his voice sounds like."

Steve has Sergio's keepsakes around the house, including a fire nozzle, cigar box and a police hat. Sergio was a police officer and detective for 10 years before becoming a firefighter just one year before 9/11.

Now, 20 years later, Steve wonders what his brother would be like.

"I always try to figure out what would he be like at 53," Steve said.

To remember him, he looks at old photographs, but truly only has to look at his boys.

Steve Villanueva and his sons playing rock, paper, scissors
Steve Villanueva wears an "FDNY" hat while watching his sons playing rock, paper, scissors.

"My youngest son reminds me of my brother. I feel like they are the same person," he said. “The older one, too, but it's how he sits while he reads."

Steve said his brother is around him all the time in spirit.

Sergio Villanueva

"He had a huge personality. He was a funny guy, very charming, very outgoing. People loved him," he said. "He was always the center of attention. What came out of this is that he will be remembered forever."