The 9/11 responder and survivor community are mourning the death of retired North Arlington Police Chief Joe Zadroga, a powerful voice in the campaign to pass and then to extend the James Zadroga 9/11 WTC Health and Compensation Act, named for his son, an NYPD Detective who died in 2006 as a consequence of his exposure to the air in lower Manhattan in the months after the attack.
NYPD Detective Zadroga was only 34 years old at the time of his death. He had logged 450 hours at the WTC site which was considered a crime scene.
According to local press reports, the elder Zadroga, 76, of Little Egg Harbor was accidentally struck by an SUV driven by an 82 year-old man on Jan. 13 in the parking lot of a Galloway Township rehabilitation center. He is survived by his wife Linda, and Tyler Ann his granddaughter and the only child of his son James.
In the years since the attack, more people have died from illnesses related to their exposure to the toxic air in and around the World Trade Center than the 2,800 that were killed in the fire and collapse of the twin towers. The fires continued to burn until March of 2002 and the area around the site was hazardous until May of 2002.
Advocates like Joe Zadroga had to overcome tremendous resistance from the City of New York which had supported the U.S. EPA’s false representation that the air around the WTC site was “safe to breathe.” Along with a broad coalition of public sector and private sector unions, the 9/11 WTC campaigners led by Jon Stewart and several terminally ill first responders persuaded Congress to act.
They got results but had to return year after year to secure them and even now continue to fight to get the 9/11 WTC Health Program fully funded so it can continue to be effective until it set to sunset in 2090 which was necessary because the City of New York continued to send close to 20,000 school children into dozens of public schools in the hazard zone.
In the twenty plus years since the attack, the 9/11 WTC Victims Compensation Fund has paid out over $13 billion and processed 70,000 claims to first responders and survivors. The 9/11 WTC Health Program has over 86,000 first responders and 41,000 civilian survivors enrolled from every state in the union. Close to 70 percent of the program participants suffer from more than one certified health condition including close to 70 different kinds of cancer.
“The 9/11 Community lost a giant amongst men,” wrote John Feal, a 9/11 WTC construction worker and campaigner. “Joe Zadroga was a reluctant hero. If there is a Mt Rushmore in the 9/11 Community, Joe would be on there.”
“The term ‘cops cop’ is too often overused, but I can think of no better description of Joe. He was selfless,” wrote Pat Colligan, president of the New Jersey PBA. “I’m not sure many others would have had the courage and tenacity to take on the establishment the way he did. Those that were there on 9-11 need to be eternally grateful for his actions. Thousands and thousands of 9-11 victims owe Joe a debt of gratitude. May he rest in peace.”
“After the loss of his son to a respiratory illness from exposure following the 9/11 attacks, Chief Zadroga turned his unfathomable pain into purpose and fought to make sure we give our brave first responders the care and respect they deserve,” wrote Sen Cory Booker (D-NJ) in a statement. “Our first responders stepped up when our country needed them the most, and Chief Zadroga’s efforts helped ensure we honor the memory of those we lost—like his courageous son, Detective James Zadroga—and the many survivors who suffered lasting harm.”
After his son James died after a long debilitating struggle, the elder Zadroga was forced into a bitter exchange in the press with then Mayor Bloomberg who told reporters that Joe’s son was not a hero but had died because he was a drug addict.
“Our Chief Medical Examiner believes that the deceased was using some of his drugs in a manner for recreational drugs,” Bloomberg told reporters at the time. “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.”
“I will never forget Joe’s courage as we fought Mayor Bloomberg who had slandered his son by suggesting that Jimmy’s death was caused by drug abuse,” recalled Michael Barasch, a leading 9/11 WTC attorney. “We demanded a meeting with the Mayor. At City Hall, we showed him hundreds of pages of medical records, including an autopsy report, which proved that Jimmy’s pulmonary fibrosis and death were caused by his exposure to the WTC toxic dust. The Mayor issued a public apology and we used Jimmy’s autopsy report, which revealed ground glass, asbestos, benzene, and other carcinogens in his lung tissue, to help convince the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety to link dozens of gastrointestinal-respiratory illnesses and 69 cancers to the WTC toxins.”
Barasch continued. “Joe turned the grief of losing a son into a mission to convince the government to provide health care for the entire 9/11 community. It was incredibly gratifying for me to walk the halls of Congress with Joe in 2010 to lobby for the passage of the James Zadroga Act — which created both the WTC Health Program and the Victim Compensation Fund. As a result of his efforts along with Jon Stewart, John Feal and the unions, health care and compensation are now available to those who get sick from their exposure, including 100,000 responders and 400,000 civilian survivors who returned to their offices, their homes, and their schools.”
In 2019, at a New York City ceremony honoring the 9/11 WTC campaigners including Joe Zadroga, the former police chief told me receiving the award was “very humbling,” adding that for him the most gratifying thing was hearing from the widows of first responders who had perished like his son about the benefits they had gotten from passage of the Zadroga Act.
“That’s why we did it from the beginning: to help the firemen, the policemen and all the other first-responders that came,” Zadroga said.
“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,” Zadroga recalled. “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 believed 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,” Zadroga told me. “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.”
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.”
At the time, the Giuliani administration did not contradict the EPA’s pronouncements that the “air was safe to breathe.”
To this day, with Mayor Eric Adams now in charge, himself a 9/11 WTC responders, the city has resisted calls by Rep. Jerold Nadler (D-NY) and Rep. Dan Goldman (D-NY) to release the Giuliani era documents which would reveal what city officials knew it and when they knew it about the air quality after the WTC collapse.