By Karen Zautyk
On Sept. 10, the day before the anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the federal government revised the Zadroga Act, the legislation that provides health benefits to first responders now suffering potentially fatal diseases linked to their work in the smoldering wreckage at Ground Zero.
The amendments, approved by a government-appointed advisory committee headed by Dr. John Howard, add 50 types of cancer to the list of ailments covered by the $4.3 billion fund, established by Congress in December 2010 and signed into law in January 2011. The money is earmarked for health monitoring and financial aid.
Thanks to this revision, uncounted numbers of individuals, sickened or dying 11 years after breathing the corrupted air that hung for months like an acrid pall over “the Pit,” will have some measure of compensation for their heroism. According to published reports, an estimated 400 people have already died from 9/11-related cancers.
It has been a long and continuing battle for help, and it might not have succeeded, or even been launched, if not for the tireless efforts of the family of the man for whom the law is named: James Zadroga.
Newcomers to this area might not be aware that he is a local hero.
Zadroga was born and raised in North Arlington. His father, Joseph, was the town’s chief of police.
The younger Zadroga joined the NYPD in 1992, rising to the rank of detective. After 9/11, he spent a reported 450 hours in search, rescue and recovery operations at the WTC site. His health problems began with a constant cough and ended in his death from respiratory disease on Jan. 5, 2006, at age 34. What followed were dueling autopsies.
Initially, the Medical Examiner’s Office in Ocean County – where Zadroga was living after his NYPD-approved disability retirement – linked the death to WTC toxins. This, though, was later disputed by the New York City ME.
The Zadroga family would not give up their quest for compensation justice. They sought the help of Dr. Michael Baden, chief forensic pathologist of the New York State Police, who agreed with the N.J. autopsy, noting, among other findings, the presence of glass particles in Zadroga’s lungs. Glass particles being among the deadly components of WTC dust.
Thanks to a persistent drumbeat of calls for aid, New York State extended death benefits to Ground Zero workers who succumbed from diseases linked to their WTC efforts.
The federal legislation followed. It is officially called the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act.
The hero’s name also can be found on a plaque on Schuyler Avenue in North Arlington, marking the entrance to the James Zadroga Memorial Soccer Field. The former Skyline Sports Complex was renamed in Zadroga’s honor in 2008. The entrance is adjacent to that ridge-top, chainlink fence where in 2001 people gathered to watch with disbelieving eyes the devastation occurring due east from their vantage point. It became an impromptu memorial.
Eleven years later, the fence is still always covered in bright new American flags and fresh flowers and “Always Remember” signs. We don’t know who’s in charge of maintaining this memorial, but whoever you are: Thank you.