9/11's Lingering Cloud

NYPD Detective Robert Williamson at ground zero.
Courtesy Maureen Williamson
By's Stephen Smith

It has been a cruel year for 5-year-old Tylerann Zadroga, and last week proved especially difficult. At her suburban New Jersey day care center, Tylerann could only watch as the other children made Father's Day cards.

"She's been upset the last few days," said her grandfather, Joseph Zadroga. "She's really been missing him."

Tylerann's dad, James Zadroga died last year at the age of 34. A decorated NYPD detective, the 9/11 rescue worker's death was the first to be directly linked to exposure to the toxic air at ground zero. (Zadroga's wife died of a heart ailment in 2005, leaving the job of raising Tylerann to her grandparents.)

Seventeen months after James Zadroga died of a respiratory disease triggered by World Trade Center toxins, doctors and politicians have gradually awakened to the ballooning health crisis stemming from the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history. The debilitating - and increasingly deadly - illnesses plaguing recovery workers are now well documented.

Of the 70,000 people taking part in Mount Sinai Medical Center's World Trade Center health study, 85 percent are suffering some kind of respiratory problem. Medical experts now say the toxic cloud sparked at ground zero has not only caused severe breathing problems in the short term but also will likely spawn diseases like cancer in the years to come. The mounting medical evidence has put pressure on lawmakers to fund monitoring and treatment for sick responders.

Still, resentment and desperation lingers among the ailing workers and the families of 9/11's delayed health casualties. They say not enough is being done to treat, support and honor the terrorist attack's forgotten victims.

"If Bush can send $15 billion to Africa over five years for AIDS treatment, I'm sure he could find $1 billion a year to help these people," Joseph Zadroga said.

For the workers besieged by ground zero-related illnesses, the pain has been increasingly unbearable. Bonnie Giebfried was buried alive in the debris of the Trade Center's south tower. The former EMT suffers from numerous ailments, including asthma, nerve damage and sciatica. But Giebfried says the emotional fallout has been equally as draining for sick responders. Surviving 9/11 responders are falling into dark clouds of depression, drugs and even suicide, she says, and with disabled parents unable to work, family dynamics are crumbling.

View a photo essay of 9/11's toxic aftermath.

Read the story of NYPD Detective James Zadroga.
The struggles are also financial. Because Giebfried was employed by a private hospital on Sept. 11, 2001, she was not considered a "uniformed" city worker and thus did not qualify for three-quarter salary benefits afforded to sick responders who worked for the city. She lost her chance at getting a disability pension at work because she fell six months shy of qualifying. Her union cancelled her medical and prescription drug benefits. Red tape and unbalanced assistance programs aren't just hurting Giebfried: In February, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office released a report showing that 40 percent of sick ground zero workers have no insurance or inadequate coverage.

"People don't know how we're existing every day, trying to pay bills, keep family structure and keep our heads above water," said Giebfried, who has lost all her savings to medical bills. "The government left us buried at ground zero."

Earlier this month, Mayor Bloomberg appointed a new World Trade Center health czar for New York. Jeffrey Hon, a former spokesman for the Red Cross Sept. 11 Recovery Program, has the task of ironing out inconsistencies in the city's health benefits as well as working with programs tracking ground zero workers' health. That effort may be hampered by a statistic released just last week: Only half of roughly 70,000 members in the registry tracking post-9/11 illnesses have responded to follow-up surveys. The dwindling numbers are making the city's already-complex task of gauging the long-term health effects more difficult.

  • Stephen Smith

    Stephen Smith is a senior editor for