Tale Of The 'Walking Dead'

James and Tylerann Zadroga in an undated family photo.
By's Stephen Smith

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."

  • Stephen Smith

    Stephen Smith is a senior editor for