Born in 1971, New York City police detective James Zadroga was one of the many first responders to help at the World Trade Center after the terrorist attacks there on September 11, 2001. After his time at the site, Zadroga started to experience respiratory problems. He retired from the force three years later because of his poor health. When Zadroga died in 2006, he was the first NYPD officer to pass away from health problems attributed to exposure to the toxic dust from World Trade Center disaster site.
A Dedicated Officer
James Zadroga followed his father Joseph’s footsteps when he decided to become a police officer. He joined the force of the New York Police Department (NYPD) in 1992. In 1999, Zadroga was promoted to detective. He was a highly decorated officer during his time with the NYPD, earning 31 medals of excellence over his career, according to the New Yorker.
After working a night shift, Zadroga was on his way home on the morning of September 11, 2001. When he heard about the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, he turned around and headed back to the city. Zadroga joined in the effort to find survivors at the site. He continued to work in the remains of the fallen towers for roughly 450 hours.
Zadroga soon found himself struggling with what he called “the World Trade Center cough,” according to a NorthJersey.com article. His health continued to decline, and the doctors he saw provided little help. Zadroga found it difficult to perform his duties as a police officer. According to a CBS News report, he once wrote, “I can’t pay my bills and work doesn’t want to acknowledge that I’m sick, ... They remember the dead but don’t want to acknowledge the sick who are living.”
In 2002, Zadroga was forced to take a leave of absence because he had become so ill. He began to depend on oxygen tanks by the following year, and a lung biopsy showed that he had acute silicosis, often known as black lung disease. Zadroga permanently retired from the NYPD on a disability pension in 2004. Around this time, he was also awarded a settlement from the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which determined that his respiratory condition was a result of his exposure to the dust at the World Trade Center site. Hoping to improve his health, he moved with his wife Ronda and their daughter Tyler Ann to Florida.
Death and Legacy
Moving to Florida did not give Zadroga the relief he was seeking. Instead he had to face another type of hardship with the death of his wife in 2005 from a heart ailment. With his daughter, Zadroga moved to his parents’ home in Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey. He died there on January 5, 2006, at the age of 34. Dr. Gerard Breton, the medical examiner who conducted the autopsy on Zadroga concluded: “It is felt with a reasonable degree of medical certainty that the cause of death in this case was directly related to the 9/11 incident,” according to the New York Times.
That August, New York governor George Pataki signed the Zadroga Act, which provided more health and death benefits to 9/11 first responders. in 2007, U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney introduced federal legislation to help 9/11 rescue workers by introducing the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act.
That same year, New York City medical examiner Charles Hirsch came to a different cause of death for Zadroga than the original report. He found that Zadroga had died from prescription drug abuse, not from the toxic dust he inhaled at the World Trade Center site. The Zadroga family opposed the findings in this report and brought in another expert, Dr. Michael Baden, to speak publicly about the case. Baden supported the original findings.
The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act
Over the next few years, Representative Maloney worked to get Zadroga’s namesake legislation passed with the help of such public figures as comedian Jon Stewart. Stewart highlighted the need for this act on his television program The Daily Show. It was finally signed into law in 2011 by President Barack Obama.
When part of the act expired in October 2015, Jon Stewart once again challenged Washington politicians to do right by the 9/11 first responders. Stewart put the plight of the act in the national spotlight by returning The Daily Show, hosted now by Trevor Noah, in December.
Stewart showed the audience his attempts to talk with lawmakers about renewing act in a video clip that went viral. “The only conclusion that I can draw is that the people of Congress are not as good a people as the people who are first responders," Stewart said on the show. He singled out Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for the delay in renewing the act, calling him “an enormous obstacle, unwilling to move the bill forward for purely political reasons.” Stewart’s efforts may have spurred politicians to action as the act was passed shortly after his Daily Show episode aired.
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