Rescue Workers Rally At Ground Zero
By MIKE KELLY
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
NEW YORK – They huddled in the winter shadows and the frigid air, this group of wounded veterans of Ground Zero, some of them leaning on canes or walkers, some breathing from oxygen tanks.
The father of James Zadroga is hugged by Bill Maher, of Maywood. Then, they read the list of names of the dead — all of them rescue workers and other volunteers who rushed, like them, into that smoldering place of terror on that sunny September morning eight years ago and breathed in too many toxins.
So far, that death list has 103 names but it will probably grow in the years to come.
There was Felix Hernandez. And Sandra Adrian. And Robert Grossman. And, finally, James Zadroga, the North Arlington kid who became a New York City police detective and then volunteered more than 400 hours at the Ground Zero clean up.
Four years ago yesterday, Zadroga took his last breath, his lungs blackened and clogged with Ground Zero’s dust and junk. He was only 34.
Here, yesterday, on a plaza only a few yards from Ground Zero, with the thump of jackhammers and the clang of cranes in the background, stood Zadroga’s father, Joseph, the former North Arlington police chief, fighting back tears as his son’s name was read
“It’s hard to believe four years have passed,” Joseph said, pulling his jacket close to his neck. “I still remember the day.”
Joe Zadroga is retired now and living in Little Egg Harbor where he and his wife, Linda, are raising their son’s 8-year-old daughter, Tyler Ann. Besides losing their son, James in 2006, the Zadroga’s lost James’s 29-year-old wife, Ronda, a year earlier to a heart ailment.
But the Zadroga’s tragic story is just one example of the long chain of suffering among Ground Zero workers.
Besides the 103 who have died so far, thousands more are in failing health. Which means that this is not just a story about health care, but a story about politics – and whether our federal government can find enough money to help.
Organizers of yesterday’s rally said they are hoping that the reading of the names of the dead will draw attention to the problem and pressure Congress into passing a new law, named after James Zadroga, to guarantee 30 years of health care and other compensation to sick Ground Zero workers.
But this is no easy task.
At yesterday’s rally, Ground Zero workers charged that Rep. Frank Pallone, the Monmouth democrat, was blocking the Zadroga bill in a health subcommittee he runs.
“He has the IQ of a soap dish,” said construction worker John Feal, who lost a portion of his foot at Ground Zero and has become a leading voice for injured workers.
In Washington, where he said he was tied up with legislation, Pallone cried foul.
“I’m 100 percent in support of this bill,” Pallone said in a telephone interview from his Capitol Hill office. “But the basic problem is that I don’t know if we have the votes.”
Feal and another injured Ground Zero veteran, Charles Giles, formerly of Garfield, say Pallone is bluffing.
“We’ve contacted every member of the committee and Pallone has the votes,” said Giles, who ran a private ambulance service and now takes more than 30 drugs to combat a variety of ailments, from asthma to congestive heart failure – all as a result of his more than 400 hours of service at Ground Zero.
“We’re sick and we’re dying,” Giles said. “We gave our hearts and our souls here. All we want is what we deserve.”
In Washington, Pallone insisted he is facing an uphill battle to help Giles and others like him. At issue, he said, is the proposal to make health benefits for Ground Zero workers an entitlement program, with a guaranteed $10 billion price tag.
But on the plaza near Ground Zero where the names of the dead were read, Pallone’s rationale – and political logic – seemed as frigid as the wind.
“It’s an outrage that we had to brave the cold weather to do this,” Feal said, his voice rising. “We’re not going to play dead.”
Standing nearby, Rep. Bill Pascrell, the Paterson democrat, listened quietly.
Sensing the potential political mess for fellow Democrats and his friend, Frank Pallone, Pascrell stepped forward and declared: “I will personally talk to Mister Pallone.”
“I don’t want to hear about the expenses,” Pascrell later said. “We will find the money to do this.”
“We do not want to be here for another anniversary of James Zadroga’s death,” added Rep. Carolyn Maloney, the New York City democrat who also attended the rally.
At the moment, Congress has been appropriating yearly installments for health care, most recently $70 million for the current fiscal year. Six hospitals – including the University of Medicine and Dentistry at Rutgers – offer free clinics for sick workers.
But there is no guarantee that sick workers will be covered as they get older.
Pallone said he wants a more permanent allocation of money and hospitalization. But he said some Congressional representatives – including Democrats – are balking, claiming that the problem is essentially confined to New York and New Jersey.
“I don’t want it to fail,” said Pallone of the Zadroga bill. “If it fails in my committee, it’s dead.”
The question of how to take care of sick Ground Zero workers has quietly lingered for several years on the fringes of political debates in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
How should these sick workers be identified? And with others in the nearby community also claiming to be sick, should the number of people eligible for benefits be expanded? If so, how much? And for how long?
As the rally ended, Joseph Zadroga turned to walk away. He stopped to speak to a friend, Joe Picurro, a former Ground Zero iron worker who grew up in Palisades Park who now needs a walker to lean on and an oxygen tank to help his lungs to breathe.
“My lungs are so swollen that they rub against my ribs,” Picurro said.
Joe Zadroga shook his head.
“These workers did this for their country,” he said. “Yet their country doesn’t help them.”