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Joseph Zadroga, who fought for 9/11 survivors’ benefits, dies

The father of NYPD detective felled by WTC’s toxic dust


Joseph Zadroga, the father of an NYPD detective who died as a result of exposure to toxins at ground zero and who later advocated for a comprehensive law to provide health care for first responders, volunteers and survivors of the 9/11 attacks, was run over and killed Saturday in Galloway Township in southern New Jersey. 

Zadroga, a former police chief in North Arlington, New Jersey, was 76 and lived in Little Egg Harbor, in Ocean County, New Jersey. 

His son, James Zadroga, who had joined the NYPD in 1992, was 34 and the father of a young daughter when he died in January 2006 of "respiratory failure due to ... history of exposure to toxic fumes and dusts,” according the coroner’s report by the Ocean County Medical Examiner. 

His passing would become the first public-employee death officially linked to time at ground zero. The coroner’s report would galvanize efforts by his father, union officials and others, to secure health care for those who were at the site and later determined to be suffering from illnesses tied to their time on the World Trade Center pile.

Joseph Zadroga was standing alongside his car Saturday afternoon in a hospital parking lot when the driver of an SUV pulling into a space accelerated and struck him, Galloway Township police said. First responders performed life-saving measures on scene before taking him to the nearby hospital, AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center Mainland Division, where he was pronounced dead.  

“Joseph Zadroga took on a fight that no father should have to face. But he fought for his hero son with incredible courage and helped every single 9/11 responder in the process. We are devastated to have lost one of the ‘blue family’s’ strongest champions, and we will mourn together with the Zadroga family,” the president of the NYPD’s Police Benevolent Association, Patrick Hendry, said in a social media post Sunday. 

Zadroga retired from the North Arlington police department in 1997 after 27 years as a cop in the borough. Born in Newark, he served in the Army from 1966 to 1968. His survivors include his wife, Linda; his son Joseph; and grandchildren Dakota and Tyler Ann, James’ daughter. 

Congress eventually passed the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act in 2010, which President Barack Obama signed into law in early 2011, establishing the WTC Health Program. 

In a social media post Monday, Mayor Eric Adams said Zadroga “never gave up the fight for his son James and all of our 9/11 first responders. Not once. 

“This is a tragic loss of a true hero and I ask all New Yorkers to join me in keeping his family and loved ones in your hearts today.”

The Detectives’ Endowment Association also paid tribute. “His advocacy helped ensure the Detective James Zadroga Act — assisting countless first responders in need,” the DEA said, also on social media. 

Contentious struggle

James Zadroga, who was in the 47-story building known as 7 World Trade Center, before its collapse on Sept. 11, spent about 500 hours at ground zero helping with rescue and recovery.

He started to have serious health problems about a year later, eventually retiring from the NYPD on a disability pension. His wife, Rhonda, died of a heart ailment in 2005, leaving him to raise his then-4-year-old daughter on his own. He eventually moved into his parents’ North Arlington home. 

Joseph Zadroga was among those who would wage what would be a protracted and contentious fight to get benefits for those who worked on the pile. 

In the fall of 2007, about 19 months after James Zadroga’s death, the city’s then-chief medical examiner, Charles Hirsch, told Zadroga’s family that it was the abuse of prescription drugs that had killed him and not the toxic dust associated with the collapse of the World Trade Center. Hirsch, who had rushed to ground zero right after the attack and oversaw the eventual identification of the 2,753 people at the time thought killed by the towers’ collapse, told the detectives’ family that James Zadroga had died because the particles of prescription drugs he was injecting into his bloodstream had penetrated his lungs. 

"I was floored that day he told me that," Joseph Zadroga, said at the time. 

A third opinion, that of Dr. Michael Baden, the city’s chief medical examiner in the late 1970s, backed the Ocean County coroner’s initial assessment. Other experts would also support that finding.  

The squabble would entangle then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who backed Hirsch’s determination that drug use had killed Zadroga. “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,” Bloomberg said at the time. 

Joseph Zadroga said Bloomberg’s subsequent apology rang hollow. “That he would come out and say something like that was just disgraceful. His apology was shallow,” he said. 

Accepting the Bronze Medallion, the city’s highest civilian honor, posthumously awarded to his son in 2019 was “difficult” and “very humbling,” Joseph Zadroga said following the Beacon Theatre ceremony that honored those who helped to win passage of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act.

“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 said. “That’s why we did it from the beginning: to help the firemen, the policemen and all the other first-responders that came.”

More than 86,000 first responders and nearly 41,000 other survivors have enrolled in the WTC Health Program since it was established. 




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