NEW YORK - The airport job was a good job. You could put food on the table, buy boots for the kids and have enough left for an overnight or two in Atlantic City. All that changed in time, and now Victor Nunez, with 33 years on the job, was headed to work in the early hours at John F. Kennedy International Airport with a new reason to lament the way things are: Ebola.
The deadly virus had been the talk for weeks around Terminal 4, where the West African flights come in. People were nervous.
Nunez, 57, is a truck driver at JFK. The slender Dominican and proud American citizen delivers food and drink to four or five jetliners during a typical shift in one of those small boxy vehicles that rises on hydraulic lifts to the cabin doors. Showing up before dawn on Oct. 16, he was being told, and not for the first time, that he would have to service an aircraft arriving from Nigeria.
There are no direct flights to the United States from countries where the Ebola outbreak has claimed thousands of lives - Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea - and so Nigeria with its carrier Arik Air becomes one option.
Nunez and his partner, Victor Santos, 51, saw Arik on their schedule and told their supervisor they refused to go on board. This was hours before they knew what would ultimately unfold on that October day.
Find someone else, they said. Their wariness had been building for weeks. They'd done more than their share of these flights, maybe eight since the outbreak began in September. Why not get one of the other teams of drivers to take a turn?
They figured their years of experience must be working against them in convincing the higher-ups to find substitutes. Nunez alone has worked 17 years at LaGuardia Airport and the last 16, with a different company, on the other side of Queens at JFK. He knows well the layout of many of the aircraft. He works quickly, without fuss. A wall in his living room in the East Elmhurst neighborhood of Queens is covered with employee- of-the-month plaques.
Nunez is the father of three and a new grandfather. He is 5-foot-4. He walks with the hunch of a man who's no stranger to standing on his feet all day. He wears a scruffy salt-and-pepper Van Dyke beard and looks out from behind his eyeglasses with a dash of bewilderment. His eyes get small, the look grows stern when he talks about Ebola.
"If we get an infection, we infect the family," Nunez said. "We need protection. We don't know who comes on the plane. Nobody knows."
Indeed, just one day after Nunez refused to go aboard the plane, a 33-year-old doctor who had been fighting the epidemic in West Africa arrived at JFK - and subsquently tested positive for Ebola. The patient, Craig Spencer, was New York's first diagnosed Ebola case.
Nunez said that the blue rubber gloves issued by his employer, LSG Sky Chefs, an airline that produces 532 million meals last year for more than 300 airlines, just aren't enough.
In response to questions about how much protective gear it provides, LSG Sky Chefs said in an emailed statement, "Our company maintains the highest standards of cleanliness and hygiene, as well as follows the Centers for Disease Control guidelines (CDC) in every step of our complete processes."
The way the job works, Nunez drives a truck to the back of the aircraft and Santos drives his truck to the front. After lifting the load of metal carts and carriers to the cabin door, they each climb aboard, installing the new supplies and taking with them the empty containers and trash. Sometimes the refuse, all kinds of liquids included, spills out and they must pick it up. With the potential for Ebola lurking in that mess, they need suits, better gloves and shoe covers, Nunez said.
After their first request for more protection last month, they say they were given a few thin paper masks that might sell at the local hardware for weekend painters. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention online guidelines for workers inside aircraft and involved in cleaning list as necessary waterproof gloves, surgical mask, goggles and gown.
JFK was designated earlier this month as one of five airports with enhanced security for the Ebola crisis. Passengers arriving from West Africa are screened for fever and other Ebola symptoms. Those same five later became the only places where flights from West Africa could land. A walk through Terminal 4 on a recent afternoon revealed a heavy presence of law enforcement, including a pair of armed soldiers who stood monitoring exiting passengers.
On the morning of Oct. 16, after Nunez and Santos told their supervisor they wouldn't work the Nigerian flight, the supervisor went to find replacements, they said. Soon word came back. No one else would volunteer. They were stuck.
Around 5:30 a.m., Nunez saw the Nigerian jetliner had landed but he and Santos were busy with another flight. Three hours later, a co-worker approached and told them no one was being allowed on or off the Arik aircraft. An unnamed 63-year- old passenger had died on board.
Ebola, Nunez feared, had come to JFK. Still, his superiors were pressing him to go on board. Finally, Nunez and Santos said they agreed to drive their trucks up to the Nigerian jetliner, but they would not get out or go on board. "I rolled up my windows and locked the door," Nunez said.
The two were told they could wait in their trucks while a team of five, including two supervisors, would do the work on the aircraft, Nunez said.
At 10 a.m., Nunez said he pulled up to the jet in his truck and deployed the stabilizers that lock onto the ground and keep the rig steady while the load is lifted into the air.
He talked to Santos in the other truck by cell phone about the ambulances and police and unidentified safety officials huddling to decide next steps.
Sitting there, Nunez decided to take notes, tapping away on his cell-phone keyboard. Should he be blamed for the delay occurring in front of him, he'd have a record. He is a careful man. He drives a 2007 Kia because he says thieves are not interested in that make or model.
Add to that the changed work atmosphere. Airlines walk a precarious line between success and failure. Schedules are tighter than when he started, managers less tolerant of extra time spent on task.
At 11:25 a.m., he described the last ambulance leaving the scene. He got a call from a flight coordinator who works with drivers like him and was told the passenger vomited in the plane before he died. At 12:10 p.m., he wrote, "estan bajando el cadaver, lo estan entrando camioncito cogelador" which translates roughly as, "they are lowering the cadaver into a small freezer truck."
The body, Nunez said, was carried out by workers in protective suits, shoe coverings, all the things he says he and his partner had requested and, so far, have failed to get.
A replacement crew of five went aboard shortly thereafter and replenished the supplies. When they were done, Nunez and Santos drove off and went back inside the airport. Along with their union representative for Local 100 Unite Here, Miguel de la Rosa, they met with members of the company's human resources department.
"They asked what we wanted and we told them," Nunez said, ticking off the protective gear that would allay his fears. Contacted after the meeting, de la Rosa said the company representatives agreed to provide the gear, but wouldn't say when.
"We have actively discussed the safety of our employees during the recent Ebola cases and will continue to provide them with additional information that addresses this issue to alleviate further concerns," LSG Sky Chefs, a unit of Deutsche Lufthansa, said in the statement, without providing further details.
As it turns out, the man on board had died of a heart attack. There was no Ebola. But in a larger sense, Nunez's isn't a story about Ebola. It's about a job that used to be something to reach for.
Nunez moved to New York as a teenager in 1974 with his family, jammed in with 10 others in a two-family home on 89th Street in Jackson Heights, Queens. Because he helped his father in his pulperia, or grocery store, in the Dominican capital of Santiago, he learned early about the rewards of putting in a day.
His first job was dishwasher in an Italian restaurant at $130 a week. From there, he moved to a plastics factory where he labored as molder. In 1980, a sister told him about an opening at LaGuardia. The coffee was free and so was the health insurance.
Two years into the job, he met his wife, Susana, who still works at LaGuardia in food prep. A year later, in 1983, they were married, their airport bosses donating three cases of champagne to the party.
The couple raised three children: a son, Victor, 29, and two daughters. His son is married and moved out. His son's wife gave birth on Sept. 22 to Nunez's first grandchild.
The middle daughter, Vickiana is 24 and lives at home, a two-story structure in East Elmhurst. Nunez and his wife share the space with her sister and her family. A large American flag covering the top front of the house was painted on by Nunez.
Inside, evidence abounds of a rich family life. Large wedding pictures of the couple adorn a living room wall. On another are displayed a slew of karate and baseball trophies earned by their children.
On a recent afternoon, Nunez dug through a box of family photos and newspaper articles and came up with a picture of his youngest daughter, Juviana. She is 19 and in her second year of college outside Boston. In the old photo, she is a baby carefully cradled in the arms of a cardiac surgeon at St. Francis Hospital on Long Island.
Juviana was born with two holes in her heart. Doctors gave her a 5-percent chance of survival. Three corrective surgeries later, she is making her parents proud with her determination to graduate.
And all those medical bills? They were paid through the health insurance that was free. Today Nunez pays $76 a week for him and Juviana for health coverage he knows is less comprehensive. (His wife gets hers through her job.) He makes $15.04 an hour before taxes. Last week, he took home $378. At that rate, he doesn't know when or if he can ever retire. And he shudders to think about trying to keep his little girl alive if she were to come into the world today with his current pay and benefits.
"No, no, no," he said, shaking his head. "Never. She wouldn't make it."
In that sense, Ebola only makes a scary job scarier.