Carmelo Mercado, a retired New York firefighter who sacrificed his health as a 9/11 responder, is now getting something back from New York, through the form of a lottery ticket.
The 63-year-old father, who lives in Orange County, New York, started buying scratch-off tickets when he retired from the fire department 11 years ago, he told ABC News today. He usually buys a few tickets a week.
"My mother always told me... life here in America is expensive, especially in New York; . play lotto," Mercado said.
He usually doesn't play on Sundays, he said, but he bought two tickets May 17 in Sunnyside, Queens.
When he got into his van, he started scratching from left to right, and found he had a winning ticket for $5 million.
"I got confused. My mind became blank," Mercado said.
"I had to verify it because it could have been a printing error. I went back to the store and I verified it with the machine and sure enough, it said 'See New York state lottery officials.'"
And Mercado certainly has a loyalty to New York. He worked at a firehouse in Queens, including the morning of September 11, 2001.
"That morning ... when the first plane hit ... you thought it was an accident, a pilot made an error," he said today. "But when the second one hit, there was no error. On the intercom there was a fireman who was trapped on a fire truck. He was about to cry. He said, 'Please come and help me.' When we heard those words ... we rushed down there.
"When I rushed there ... I saw grown firemen hugging each other and crying. And when I saw that, I said, 'This is bad,'" he said.
"As a fireman from 9/11, I inherited injuries, illnesses," he said, which led him to retire a few years later.
Now, with his new winnings, Mercado said he'll get to keep about $3.3 million, which will first go toward paying off a mortgage "hanging over my head," as well as other bills.
But he said he wants most of the money to go to his children. Mercado, a father of four, has three children in their 30s, and his oldest daughter has a son of her own.
He also has a daughter who is 10. Every August he takes her to Disney World, he said, and now Mercado may even buy a house in Florida for his children and grandson to enjoy.
"This time around I might buy something permanent," he said. "Hopefully, she [the 10-year-old] will still want to go Disney World when she's 18.
"Once I pay my house off, that's my main priority. ... The rest, I'll feel good that I put something away for them," he said.
Mercado added he now plans to "just enjoy the summer" with his young daughter.
Lee Park, director of communications at the New York Gaming Commission, told ABC News in a statement today: "The New York Lottery is thrilled for all our winners, but we are especially heartened and delighted that one of New York's Bravest who served at Ground Zero has brought home a well-deserved jackpot. We welcome Mr. Mercado to the New York Lottery family and wish and him all the best."