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Extreme heat contributed to his brother’s death. He worries he could be next

Wilmer Vasquez was a gregarious extrovert. "He was very outgoing person," remembers his ex-girlfriend Rose Carvajal. He died in 2023 at just 29 years old after working outside as a roofer in record-breaking August heat in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Rose Carvajal
Wilmer Vasquez was a gregarious extrovert. "He was very outgoing person," remembers his ex-girlfriend Rose Carvajal. He died in 2023 at just 29 years old after working outside as a roofer in record-breaking August heat in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Ever since they were little, Yonatan Vasquez was best friends with his brother Wilmer.

It wasn’t that they were so similar. Wilmer, the younger one, was an extrovert. “He just wanted to be around people,” Yonatan says. “He was always encouraging people, making sure they were doing good. He liked to be the center of attention.”

The brothers often worked together as roofers in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Wilmer would D.J. for the other guys in the work crew. “He would dance on the roof,” Yonatan remembers, laughing.

That’s not Yonatan. “I could care less about people,” he says. “I’m the total opposite.” The brothers’ differences extended to their hobbies. “He liked rap music, I liked classic rock. He knew a lot about sports and movies. I like science stuff,” Yonatan says.

And yet, they were close. It was like Wilmer understood what Yonatan was feeling, even if Yonatan didn’t say it. “There was just a certain understanding there,” he says. “We had the same wavelength but different vibrations.”

Despite their differences, both brothers ended up in the roofing business. Their father had also been a roofer, as were multiple uncles, so it was kind of the family profession. Although Yonatan says he wishes it wasn’t.

“I wish I would have chose a different career path, honestly,” he says. “I’d rather be something else.” Wilmer has a young son, and Yonatan says when the boy grows up, he’ll encourage him to avoid a career in roofing. “We don’t need a third generation roofer,” he says. “It’s a hard job.”

Yonatan Vasquez and his brother were just a year apart, and were extremely close. Yonatan's earliest memory with Wilmer was arguing about who would get the top bunk in their bedroom.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
/
NPR
Yonatan Vasquez and his brother were just a year apart, and were extremely close. Yonatan's earliest memory with Wilmer was arguing about who would get the top bunk in their bedroom.

Summer is the most dangerous time for roofers, Yonatan says. During the summer, temperatures in South Florida routinely get extremely high. Human-caused climate change is causing more intense heat waves that last longer, and people who work outside are some of the most at-risk for deadly heat illness.

Working on a roof is particularly punishing. There’s no shade, and workers often have to work with hot materials. “If you touch one of the tiles, it burns your hands,” Yonatan says. “Especially the asphalt shingles, they absorb a lot of heat.”

And in places where there’s a lot of humidity, like Florida, conditions can quickly become deadly. That’s what killed Wilmer last summer, Yonatan says. He worries he could be next.

Wilmer Vasquez, seen here with Rose Carvajal and their son Sebastian. "He was very excited about being a dad," says Carvajal, and loved to take his young son fishing.
Rose Carvajal /
Wilmer Vasquez, seen here with Rose Carvajal and their son Sebastian. "He was very excited about being a dad," says Carvajal, and loved to take his young son fishing.

A normal day at work became deadly

In the months leading up to Wilmer’s death, Yonatan had been trying to convince his brother to leave the roofing business. He says both he and his brother coped with the stress – physical and emotional – by drinking too much. They both suffered from muscle cramps and dizziness on hot days at work, but it happened to Wilmer more often.

“I’m, like, ‘Maybe try a factory. Try something [where] you work inside, cuz I don’t think you can handle outside,’ ” Yonatan remembers suggesting to his brother.

But Wilmer wasn’t convinced. “[He was], like, ‘No, but if I’m a truck driver I’m gonna talk to nobody. Just me all alone,’ ” Yonatan remembers. Solitary indoor work didn’t appeal to Wilmer’s extrovert personality.

Like his brother Wilmer, Yonatan Vasquez works as a roofer in South Florida. He says the weather often gets dangerously hot  in the summer and he experiences dehydration, muscle cramps and other signs of heat illness.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
/
NPR
Like his brother Wilmer, Yonatan Vasquez works as a roofer in South Florida. He says the weather often gets dangerously hot in the summer and he experiences dehydration, muscle cramps and other signs of heat illness.

Last July and August were the hottest ever recorded in South Florida. The heat index, which incorporates both temperature and humidity, was above 100 degrees Fahrenheit for 46 days in a row in neighboring Miami.

On August 21, 2023, both Yonatan and Wilmer went to work as usual. Yonatan remembers it was a humid day, with temperatures in the 90s.

Wilmer was assigned to deliver roofing tiles in the morning, and then around noon, he got up on a roof to install wood along the eave. Yonatan finished his work at a different site, and at some point that afternoon, he started getting calls from Wilmer’s colleagues.

“I remember people calling me [saying], ‘Hey, how’s your brother? He really cramped up today, man,’ ” Yonatan remembers.

Someone gave Wilmer a ride home. Yonatan could see that his brother was sick from the heat. His muscles were cramping, he was dizzy. He didn’t want to be in air conditioned spaces. “Any time we’d put AC on him or a fan, he’d tell us to take it away,” Yonatan says.

Muscle cramps, dizziness, and feeling cold, even though the body is overheating, are common symptoms of serious heat illness.

Wilmer’s condition worsened overnight, and he died at the hospital the next morning. Yonatan was his brother’s emergency contact, so he was the first to find out.

“I didn’t really cry at all until the doctor told my mom,” he says, and falls silent for a moment.

Yonatan Vasquez worries that dangerously hot weather could take his life like it took his brother's. He has entirely stopped drinking alcohol and wears breathable long-sleeve shirts with UV protection, a face mask, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses when he's working in an effort to protect himself from rising temperatures due to climate change.
Ryan Kellman / NPR
/
NPR
Yonatan Vasquez worries that dangerously hot weather could take his life like it took his brother's. He has entirely stopped drinking alcohol and wears breathable long-sleeve shirts with UV protection, a face mask, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses when he's working in an effort to protect himself from rising temperatures due to climate change.

“My mom, her soul left her body. And she looked right at me. Her face is like, ‘Are you for real?’ And I’m, like, ‘It’s true,’ ” he remembers. “That’s when I think I broke down.”

Wilmer Vasquez was 29 years old.

When climate change threatens your career, and your life

Yonatan says it’s obvious to him that climate change played a huge role in his brother’s death.

“I have to explain to people that my brother died: it was because of it being the hottest year on record,” Yonatan says.

Wilmer Vasquez, seen here with his son Sebastian, died after working outside in August 2023. It was hottest July and August ever recorded in South Florida. "I have to explain to people that my brother died, and it was because of it being the hottest year on record," says his brother Yonatan. "People don’t understand how hot it is."
Rose Carvajal /
Wilmer Vasquez, seen here with his son Sebastian, died after working outside in August 2023. It was hottest July and August ever recorded in South Florida. "I have to explain to people that my brother died, and it was because of it being the hottest year on record," says his brother Yonatan. "People don’t understand how hot it is."

But he says a lot of his friends and family members still don’t understand how hot it really is, and how dangerous the heat can be.

“It’s only gonna get worse,” Yonatan says. “People don’t understand how hot it is. Because when they work, it’s in the air conditioning. When they go to their car, it’s air conditioning. When they go to their house, their work, it’s air conditioning. They only feel [the heat] like 20 minutes out of the whole day. They don’t understand when you feel it for 10 to 12 hours a day, how much your body has to work.”

Yonatan worries that the heat could claim his life as well. The summers are only getting hotter. And while heat-related worker protections are patchy at best across the U.S., Florida took the step earlier this year of prohibiting local governments in the state from passing laws that would require workers like Yonatan to be given rest breaks, water and access to shade on dangerously hot days.

Yonatan thinks a lot about getting out of the roofing business. Maybe he could work in IT, he says. In the meantime, he stopped drinking alcohol, and he is more careful about what he eats and drinks. He wears long-sleeves and a sun hat to protect himself from the sun while he’s working.

“If I don’t change a lot of stuff in my life I’m not gonna make it past 40,” he says. “My brother didn’t make it past 30. I don’t want my mom to bury another son.”


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Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.