Mayor Michael Bloomberg apologized Monday to the father of a police detective he had described last week as "not a hero" because of questions about his death following his work on the Sept. 11 World Trade Center cleanup.
"I believe that James Zadroga was a hero for the way he lived, regardless of the way that he died," Bloomberg told reporters after meeting with the retired police officer's father, Joseph Zadroga.
James Zadroga became a national symbol of post-Sept. 11 illness after his death last year. Chief Medical Examiner Charles Hirsch recently ruled, however, that Zadroga contracted a fatal lung disease not because of World Trade Center dust but because he had been injecting himself with ground-up pills.
"Nobody wanted to hear that," Bloomberg said at Harvard University last week when he was asked about the intersection of science and public policy. "We wanted to have a hero, and there are plenty of heroes. It's just, in this case, science says this was not a hero."
The comment upset Zadroga's family and former colleagues. Joseph Zadroga said the mayor was "heartless" and asked to meet with him, while the police unions called for a public apology and said Bloomberg had lost their trust.
While Zadroga's father was inside City Hall with the mayor on Monday, a small group of protesters stood outside chanting, "Zadroga is a hero, Bloomberg is a zero."
After emerging from the meeting, Joseph Zadroga said the mayor had been "very gracious" and had told him that last week's remark was off the cuff and not what he had intended to say.
"He showed his sympathy for James," Zadroga said outside City Hall. "He said that James was a hero, a true hero."
James Zadroga's relatives, who live in Little Egg Harbor, N.J., dispute the New York medical examiner's findings about drug use and say the medicine he was taking to treat his illness, including several strong painkillers and anti-anxiety pills, was never improperly injected.
A New Jersey medical examiner ruled separately last year that the police detective, who put in more than 400 hours working at ground zero, died from inhaling the toxic dust. Bills were named after Zadroga in Congress to pay for research and treatment for sick ground zero workers.
His family had sought the New York medical examiner's opinion as part of the city's process for adding names to the official list of Sept. 11, 2001, victims and the memorial to be built at ground zero.
The New York ruling that Zadroga's death was not related to the World Trade Center dust means that his name will not be added. Bloomberg, who leads the memorial foundation, told Joseph Zadroga on Monday that he will find a way to ensure that the memorial honors those who have become sick from working at ground zero.
It was unclear whether the names of sick workers would be listed
which is what the family wants or whether there would be a general tribute.
Deputy Mayor Ed Skyler told reporters after the meeting that Bloomberg "made the commitment that the people who became ill during the recovery would be honored, and as to what form that takes, I don't think he's going to make that decision on the fly."
Officials in charge of a Sept. 11 museum accompanying the memorial had already been planning to address health issues somewhere in the museum.
Joseph Zadroga and his attorney also gave the mayor personnel and medical records that showed that his son developed breathing problems just after the 2001 attacks and that the medical board of the police pension fund granted him a disability pension due to his ground zero exposure.
They said they planned to appeal to the New York medical examiner and ask him to re-examine the information.
They also said the mayor told them he would ask the medical examiner to review the case. But Skyler said Bloomberg had committed only to looking over their material and had no authority to order a review by the medical examiner.