For Joe Zadroga, 73, accepting the Bronze Medallion, the city’s highest civilian honor, in memory of his son, NYPD Det. James Zadroga, was not easy.
The award was made during the de Blasio administration’s Dec. 16 ceremony at the Beacon Theater honoring individuals and organizations that helped to win congressional passage of permanent funding for the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund.
James Zadroga was just 34 years old when he died in 2006 from his World Trade Center-related respiratory illness. He had worked 450 hours at the Ground Zero site.
‘Means More Than Medals’
“It is difficult, and getting this award today is very humbling,” Mr. Zadroga, a former North Arlington, N.J. police chief, said during an interview. “But someone who came up to me today, one of the firemen’s widows, thanked me for getting help for her husband, and that means more to me than receiving any medals.”
He continued, “That’s why we did it from the beginning: to help the firemen, the policemen and all the other first-responders that came.”
Joining Mr. Zadroga on stage at the Beacon was his wife, Linda, and James’s daughter Tyler Ann, 18, who was just four years old when her father died.
Tyler Ann’s mother died of cancer two years before her father passed.
Years after his death, James Zadroga’s name was memorialized when it was attached to landmark Federal and state legislation passed to aid first-responders afflicted with WTC illnesses.
Yet for years after his 9/11 exposure, while he was battling to stay alive, he was maligned by public officials who refused to see the WTC exposure as the cause of his rapid physical deterioration and chronic respiratory disease.
“For five years we went to everybody, Congressmen, you name it, TV stations, radio stations, anyplace you could think of for help, and they all turned us down,” Mr. Zadroga said. “They refused to say his injuries were related to 9/11. Whenever he got treated in a hospital, I know the doctors wanted to treat him and take care of him, but two days later somebody would make a phone call and he would be thrown out of the hospital. This didn’t just go on once, it went on 50 or 60 times over a five-year period. Every time he went in, they would throw him out.”
The former police chief believes the resistance was linked to the original official misrepresentation about the air quality in lower Manhattan and the importance of continuing to downplay any residual health risks. “What it was about was Wall Street, finance and keeping business in New York City, in my opinion,” Mr. Zadroga said. “Wall Street was talking about moving out and going to Jersey City.”
Three days after the 9/11 attack, former New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman, then head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, told reporters that “the good news continues to be that air samples we have taken have all been at levels that cause us no concern.”
That statement was uttered even though the fires at the World Trade Center site continued to burn and smolder until just before Christmas.
Smacked of Cover-Up
Two years after 9/11, a review by the EPA Inspector General concluded EPA “did not have sufficient data and analyses to make such a blanket statement,” as “air monitoring data was lacking for several pollutants of concern.”
Moreover, the OIG learned that it was President George W. Bush’s White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) that heavily edited the EPA press releases “to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones.”
Even though samples taken indicated asbestos levels in lower Manhattan were between double and triple the EPA’s limit, the CEQ downplayed the readings as just “slightly above” the limit, the EPA IG found.
And when the EPA’s Inspector General tried to identify who had actually written the misleading press statements, they “were unable to identify any EPA official who claimed ownership” because investigators were told by the EPA Chief of Staff that “the ownership was joint ownership between EPA and the White House” and “final approval came from the White House.”
Maligned by City ME
After Detective Zadroga’s passing, the cause of his death became the source of a bitter controversy. In April 2006, a New Jersey coroner where he lived issued an autopsy that called the young Detective’s WTC exposure the cause of death, the first case of a WTC health link for a member of the NYPD.
Several months later, the New York City Medical Examiner declared that the NYPD Detective died as a result of recreational drug use.
The Zadroga family sought a third opinion, that of Dr. Michael Baden, a former New York City Medical Examiner and the Chief Forensic Pathologist with the New York State Police. He backed the initial finding by the New Jersey doctor that established the WTC linkage to Mr. Zadroga’s death.
At the height of the controversy, Mayor Bloomberg entered the fray. “Our Chief Medical Examiner believes that the deceased was using some of his drugs in a manner for recreational drugs,” he told reporters. “We wanted to have a hero. There are plenty of heroes. It’s just in this case, the science says this was not a hero.”
Those remarks by Mr. Bloomberg alleging drug abuse hit the Zadroga family hard and still sting, despite a personal apology that followed.
“That did hurt,” Mr. Zadroga said. “We knew for a fact that was not true because he was out of it half the time because he was in so much pain because of his lungs. That he [Mr. Bloomberg] would come out and say something like that was just disgraceful. His apology was shallow.”
He continued, “I remember the first time reporters called me and talked to me and asked, ‘What are you going to sue for? How much you going to sue for?’ And I said we are not going to sue; we are just here to help people, and I think that gave me credibility as an advocate after that.”
Tyler Ann Zadroga said her only clear recollections of her father were that he was sick and that she had “to take care of him.” Most of what she knows about her father comes from the recollections of others.
For her, the Beacon event was like being part of an extended family. “Today I saw a lot of people I have seen at previous events, so whenever I see them it’s always big smiles and hugs because I feel like I have known them my whole life,” she said.
A high-school senior, she hopes to attend Stockton University and transfer to John Jay College. “I want to do something with criminal justice, so I am probably looking for crime-scene investigation or criminal psychology right now,” she said.
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