Just two weeks ago, Rafael Hernández was counting the days to December, when -- he hoped and prayed -- he could visit his native Mexico to see the daughters he had not seen in years.

But on Thursday, he lay in a coffin at his wake in Queens, where he was found dead Sunday. Hernández had suffered multiple health problems since running into the World Trade Center in 2001 to rescue people, and then spent three months cleaning the area as a volunteer. 

"We have lost a leader," Rosa Duque, a Guatemalan immigrant who suffers from respiratory and stomach problems, said at his wake in Corona.

The medical examiner will determine Hernández's cause of death. The Mexican consulate in Manhattan is handling the arrangements for the shipment of his body to Mexico, spokeswoman Sonia Barra said Friday.

The 49-year-old Hernández had been showing friends visiting from Mexico the area around the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 when the planes hit the towers. 

A firefighter in Mexico, Hernández told Fox News Latino in early September that he felt duty-bound to use his skills to rescue people when he saw that the towers were on fire.

"I've always been driven to help, to rescue," Hernández said in the days before the 10th anniversary of the attacks. "I joined firefighting when I was a teenager in Mexico."

After helping to rescue people from the towers, including a woman who was nine months pregnant, and who he carried down 29 flights to her safety, he did not return home for three months. He stayed at Ground Zero, first trying to find survivors, then helping recover remains.

Hernández eventually was diagnosed with chronic respiratory conditions that could be linked to his exposure to Ground Zero. The health problems, which worsened over the years, left him virtually unable to hold a full-time job. Hernández had to sleep hooked up to an oxygen machine. 

For his efforts on Sept. 11, Hernández was one of about a dozen immigrants featured two years ago in "Renewing Our American Dream After 9/11," an exhibit at the Tribute WTC Visitor Center (World Trade Center) near Ground Zero.

Hernández, who described himself as a workhorse, devoted whatever energy he could muster to helping fellow immigrants who worked at Ground Zero deal with their illness, especially the psychological trauma that gripped many later. 

He led a biweekly support group called Frontiers of Hope where the workers discussed their illnesses. 

At his wake Thursday afternoon, many of Hernández's friends from the support group gave emotional speeches and paid tribute in song. They recalled how he would accompany them to medical appointments or translate for them in court when needed.

Over the summer, Hernández had intensified his efforts to urge workers to apply to the newly reopened Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund, which will start accepting applications next week.

Social worker Rosa Bramble-Weed, who ran the support group with Hernández, said she and other cleaners had resolved to continue his work.

Colombian immigrant María del Rosario Prada sang at the wake. Before working near ground zero, she had been a soprano, but she said the dust had taken a toll on her vocal cords.

"He told me: `Sing for me when I go,'" she said. "And that's what I'm going to do."

This story contains material from The Associated Press.

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Elizabeth Llorente is the Politics Editor/Senior Reporter for Fox News Latino, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnewslatino.com. Follow her on https://twitter.com/Liz_Llorente

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