Police Who Died of Sept. 11-Linked Illnesses Honored
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
New York City police continue to honor those who are still dying from the terrorist attacks on September 11th. At a police memorial yesterday, they added the names of eight officers who worked at the smoking pit at Ground Zero then later died of respiratory disease. Placing the names on the wall of heroes is symbolic, and NPR's Robert Smith reports that the legal fight over what's known as 9/11 sickness is far from settled.
ROBERT SMITH: At NYPD headquarters, an officer read out a somber role call.
Unidentified Man: Detective James Zadroga - absent. Police Officer Thomas Brophy - absent.
SMITH: The names will be featured on the memorial wall above the entrance to the headquarters. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly had something to say about each officer.
Commissioner RAYMOND KELLY (Police Commissioner, NYPD): Detective James Zadroga didn't shy from any challenge.
SMITH: What he didn't talk about was how they died. Zadroga worked at Ground Zero for weeks. Only later did he start to experience a chronic cough and shortness of breath.
Comm. KELLY: Police Officer James Godbe patrolled the 28th precinct in his 18 years with the department.
SMITH: Godbe also worked in a paper mask at Ground Zero. An autopsy after his heart attack found lungs pitted with blisters and scars.
Comm. KELLY: Detective John Young also earned multiple honors.
SMITH: Young died of lung cancer. He logged weeks working at the attack site.
They may have all passed away in hospital beds or at home, but Commissioner Ray Kelly says that all of them died in the line of duty.
Comm. KELLY: Each toiled for hundreds of hours to restore order to the city, to search for comrades, and to provide closure to the loved ones left behind.
SMITH: It was a bittersweet moment for the families. For years, they'd been pushing City Hall for this honor. But even as the police were recognizing the deaths, the city's lawyers were fighting against some of the families in court. Around 8,000 recovery workers have sued New York City, saying that officials didn't protect them from the contaminated air around Ground Zero. They say their illnesses - everything from asthma to cancer - come from a lack of proper face masks.
David Worby represents most of the plaintiffs. He says the inclusion of police officers on the memorial wall is a good symbol, but it's not enough.
Mr. DAVID WORBY (Attorney): If you look at that wall, these people should've been compensated and known that their families were taken care of while they were alive. So the need is urgent, that these very sick people know that they stood behind the country and that six years later, the country still hasn't stood behind them, and the need to do it is now.
SMITH: New York City's lawyers have fought the claims. They said in court that the city was immune from lawsuits in this case. A state law protects the city from litigation after response to an emergency. A federal court judge disagreed with that interpretation. He said the immunity didn't last for six months after the cleanup. A federal appeals court agreed.
But after all this legal wrangling, a daunting task remains. Each plaintiff will have to show that his or her illness was related to the air at Ground Zero and not the kind of naturally occurring diseases you would find in any population.
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SMITH: After the police ceremony, Linda Zadroga, the mother of Detective James Zadroga, said that seeing her son's name on the memorial wall does help ease the pain, but she's still hoping that the city and the federal government will step forward with money for those that are still sick.
MS. LINDA ZADROGA: We are going to help these other people, 'cause that's what Jimmy would've wanted us to do. I know he would've. And we even spoke about it when we first passed away. Do we walk away from this or do we help, you know, go on talk and help other people? We decided Jimmy would want us to talk about it.
SMITH: She and her husband have testified before Congress for passage of a bill that would pay for the treatment of Ground Zero workers. But they haven't joined the lawsuit against the city. She says her son wouldn't have wanted that.
Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.