Zadroga was inside Seven World Trade Center as the building collapsed on September 11. After surviving the collapse, Zadroga spent the next several weeks helping search for victims' remains, his work totaling more than 450 hours of digging through debris and inhaling noxious gases. Despite assurances from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials that no health risks were associated with digging through the debris, Zadroga started exhibiting respiratory disorder symptoms. His health problems led the NYPD to grant him a tax-free disability pension of three-quarters pay in 2004; this settlement did not pay for his medical expenses. In the next two years Zadroga's health problems led to $50,000 in medical bills. Furthermore, in 2004 Zadroga's wife died of a brain tumor, leaving him alone to care for their young daughter. Zadroga expressed his anguish in a letter written soon after his illness began. Zadroga died on January 6, 2006, in Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey. He was 34 at the time of his death. An autopsy attributed his death to "foreign body granules in his lungs."
The controversy over Zadroga continued after his death. Although the medical examiner in Ocean County, New Jersey, determined that Zadroga's death was directly linked to his 500 hours of work at Ground Zero, New York City officials refused to recognize his death as being in the line of duty. A statement by Christine Whitman, former governor of New Jersey who was head of the EPA on September 11, implied that city officials, and even those working at Ground Zero, were to blame for not heeding warnings about contaminated air. Whitman's statement further inflamed the issue, and elicited the assertion from U.S. senator Hillary Clinton that Whitman wanted "to wash her hands of this tragedy, but her EPA told New Yorkers that the air was safe to breathe." Charges and claims continue to cloud the issue while others who worked at Ground Zero continue to experience increasing health problems. The Zadroga family finally received some relief when New York governor George Pataki signed a bill in August 2006 that entitles Zadroga's daughter, Tylerann, to full line-of-duty death benefits until she reaches age 19. An effort by the family to have Zadroga listed among the victims of September 11 was opposed by the New York City medical examiner, who claimed in October 2007 that Zadroga died of ingested drugs rather than from the dust at Ground Zero. This opinion was contradicted by previous examinations of the evidence.
Zadroga is the namesake of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, introduced in Congress by Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) on February 4, 2009. The bill, which won final approval from Congress on December 22, 2010, and was signed into law by President Barack Obama on January 2, 2011, will provide $4.2 billion in medical care to first responders, cleanup workers, and New York City residents exposed to toxins caused by the destruction of the World Trade Center.
Stephen E. Atkins
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