Joseph Zadroga now plays Ken to his granddaughter Tylerann's Barbie in the family's suburban home in New Jersey. The ex-police chief has assumed the make-believe role previously played by his son, James.
Last month, James Zadroga, a 34-year-old New York City police detective, died of a respiratory disease he contracted during rescue and recovery operations at Ground Zero — the site of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
During the long and painful period that preceded his death, James Zadroga's wife, Ronda, 29, died of a heart ailment.
That left the job of raising 4-year-old Tylerann to her grief-stricken grandparents, Joseph and his wife, Linda.
"It's been very hard," said Linda Zadroga, who turns 60 next month. "But we don't mind. My son lives in her."
The Zadrogas are reminded of their son every time they look at Tylerann. Her doughy cheeks and talk-to-anyone energy evoke a reminder of James — a carefree, burly guy who loved playing Barbie with his daughter. He was also a humble, conscientious cop who never told his family about the 31 medals of excellence he earned on the job.
But the last four years offered a picture of a different man. Shortly after finishing his rescue and recovery work at the World Trade Center, Zadroga developed a chronic cough, shortness of breath and acid reflux. He was plagued by nightmares and headaches. Within months, he needed oxygen tanks, antibiotics and steroid injections on a regular basis.
James, who was 6 feet 2 and weighed more than 260 pounds before getting sick, had lost more than 40 pounds by the time his father found him dead on his bedroom floor in the family home Jan. 5.
More than four years after hijackers rammed passenger jets into the twin towers, at least a dozen people who worked at Ground Zero have died of diseases attributed to the witch's brew of deadly chemicals and toxic substances that filled the air at the disaster site.
Thousands of other Ground Zero workers are suffering from serious respiratory ailments. The victims include police officers, firefighters, construction workers and even immigrant laborers. Some call these forgotten men and women the "walking dead."
James Zadroga became the first NYPD officer to die as a direct result of exposure to Ground Zero's cocktail of chemicals, said Michael Palladino, president of the Detectives' Endowment Association.
"I do not think he will be the last, unfortunately," Palladino said.
Linda Zadroga says her son prepared Tylerann for his death. But she also remembers her granddaughter's reaction on the day he finally lost his battle with the chemicals that invaded his body.
"I thought he was just sleeping," Tylerann told Linda. "I didn't know it was going to be this soon."
While Zadroga was losing the battle with his lungs, he was also losing a fight with the city. In March 2002, James filed a line of injury report with the NYPD, documenting his labored breathing and persistent cough. The report proved worthless, his parents say.
Joseph Zadroga says the NYPD never acknowledged his son's condition until it was too late. James was often forced to report to work — over a two-hour drive from his suburban New Jersey home — when he couldn't even walk up the stairs, his father says.
"He felt the loss not only from being sick but by the treatment of the police department," he said. "He felt abandoned."
"I think, at the time, the city of New York was in a state of denial," Palladino said.
The NYPD would not comment on the Zadrogas' claims that their son was pressured to report for work despite his failing health. They said the department has an unlimited sick policy and that ailing emergency responders who worked more than 40 hours at Ground Zero now qualify for disability pension under a law that was not on the books when Zadroga fell ill.
The department did confirm that Zadroga, who worked more than 450 hours at the disaster site, was the first police officer to die after reporting Ground Zero-related health problems.
Just months after 9/11, Zadroga was bed-ridden and tethered to an oxygen tank. He moved to Florida, where his wife, Ronda, fell ill with a heart ailment. She died in October 2004 at the age of 29.
Linda Zadroga says it was difficult for Tylerann, who was not even 2 years old at the time, to express her feelings but her anguish still surfaces.
"She does get frustrated," she said. "She cries and wants her mommy."
After his wife's death, James Zadroga, emotionally and physically diminished, took Tylerann back to New Jersey and moved in with his parents.
Now receiving a disability pension, he was shuttled between home and hospital. He underwent cat scans, X-rays and MRIs. Nothing conclusive showed, his parents say, so doctors would simply diagnose asthma, give him steroids and a nebulizer, and let him go.
At home, it was little Tylerann who became her father's caretaker. She helped him with his oxygen and announced when he felt feverish.
"I told him to lie on the couch," Tylerann said. "I gave my daddy his medicine."
While Tylerann was helping, politicians were not. Linda Zadroga, despondent over her son's deteriorating health, repeatedly contacted local and state officials, appealing for them to help what she calls the "walking dead" — the ranks of 9/11 rescue workers coping with respiratory problems.
She finally received a letter from New York Gov. George Pataki. Through his director of scheduling, the governor declined to discuss the matter, citing "time restrictions."
"They didn't help my son," said Linda, who added that only after James died did a handful of officials come forward. "I don't need their politicking."
Despair turned to bitterness. Over the holidays, Linda sent a Christmas card to every public official she had contacted. Underneath a black-clad Santa, she wrote a caustic thank-you for all the help they gave her son. The final sign-off: "Oh, I forgot, you didn't help him."
Zadroga himself grew disillusioned with the force he once proudly served. "I can't pay my bills and work doesn't want to acknowledge that I'm sick, depressed and disgusted … They remember the dead but don't want to acknowledge the sick who are living," he wrote.
Zadroga was one of many "walking dead." Estimates vary, but tens of thousands of workers and residents have reported some lingering effects from Ground Zero exposure. Of the roughly 70,000 people currently enrolled in Mount Sinai's World Trade Center health study, more than 60,000 suffer some kind of respiratory problem.
Dr. David Prezant, co-director of the New York Fire Department's World Trade Center medical program, conducted a lung function study of 13,000 firefighters, EMTs and paramedics. He said that after Sept. 11, the average breathing capacity of the people tested dropped more than 11 times the normal aging process.
Prezant said that many questions remain about what could lurk down the road for emergency responders, especially latent diseases such as cancer, and encouraged more funding to maintain monitoring programs.
"Early diagnosis leads to early treatment," he said.
James Zadroga's diagnosis came way too late, his parents say. In 2003, he underwent a gallium scan — a radioactive procedure that looks for areas of hidden infection in the body. The test revealed black lung disease; a separate test disclosed he had the lungs of an 80-year-old man. Last Friday would have been his 35th birthday.
Relying on anti-depressants and therapy, Joseph and Linda Zadroga now have the task of raising a 4-year-old and explaining why her father is no longer here.
"With him gone, it's hard because you really don't want to upset her," said Linda, who added that they would probably seek family counseling soon for Tylerann.
The Zadrogas, who have no relatives close by to help out, have struggled with the switch from doting grandparents to 24/7 parents. It is now Joseph, not James, who plays with Tylerann and tries to coax her to sleep every night.
"Our biggest worry is us staying healthy," said Joseph, who turns 59 in April.
The Zadrogas were interviewed at the New York offices of their lawyer, Michael Barasch. But they have filed no lawsuit in connection with the death or their son, and have no intention of doing so.
The Zadrogas said they spoke out in hopes of highlighting the plight of other Ground Zero workers who have fallen ill.
"They're just letting people die like dogs," said Joseph Zadroga. "They're treating them like a number and letting them die."
The federal government has earmarked $125 million for monitoring the health of people exposed to the disaster site, but Joseph Zadroga insists that only treatment, not tracking, will help the situation.
There are signs the climate may be changing. Members of the New York congressional delegation have called on the federal government to designate a health czar to oversee the treatment of workers made ill by their work at the World Trade Center.
And this month, a judge green-lighted a class-action lawsuit by Ground Zero workers and residents of nearby neighborhoods. The judge blasted federal officials for assuring the public that it was safe to return to lower Manhattan in the days after Sept. 11.
But for Linda and Joseph Zadroga, the political rhetoric offers little consolation for the son they lost. Four-year-old Tylerann, meanwhile, is simply trying to make sense of her loss.
"She told everyone at day care that her parents died," said Linda. "I don't think she understands why."
By Stephen Smith