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Victim Compensation FundZadroga ActWTC Health Program

First Victims of Ground Zero Illnesses Were Union Responders

June 7, 2022 | Michael Barasch

There were more than 100,000 union first responders who deployed to Lower Manhattan on and after 9/11, working tirelessly for weeks and then months on search-and-rescue and recovery operations.

At the time, government officials claimed the air near Ground Zero was safe to breathe.

Yet within weeks, many responders had developed “World Trade Center cough” – a persistent cough accompanied by respiratory symptoms severe enough to require medical leave for at least four weeks.

Many union first responders who had worked at Ground Zero now struggled to breathe, including NYPD Detective James Zadroga, a Barasch & McGarry client and Detectives Endowment Association member who gasped for air after walking even a short distance.

These initial respiratory illnesses were an early warning of problems to follow. 

Within a few years of 9/11, first responders and survivors were developing chronic respiratory conditions and 68 types of cancer at disproportionately high rates – and much earlier in their lives than normal.

Detective Zadroga, for example, passed away in 2006 of a severe respiratory illness. He was only 34 years old.

An autopsy found pulverized glass and concrete in Detective Zadroga’s lungs, as well as many toxic chemicals.

The stories of Detective Zadroga and other union responders were crucial to the enactment of the World Trade Center (WTC) Health Program and the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund (VCF). 

The health program provides free, comprehensive medical care for 9/11-related illnesses. The fund offers tax-free awards for pain and suffering, lost earnings, and benefits for surviving spouses and family members.

There are still tens of thousands of union first responders and survivors who have not yet registered with the VCF.

We have a shared responsibility to inform them about their right to health care and compensation.

If you were in Lower Manhattan on 9/11 or during the eight following months, you are eligible to register – even if you are currently healthy.

Barasch & McGarry, Lawyers for the 9/11 Community, which represents 30,000 members of the 9/11 community, has proudly advocated for union members for more than twenty-five years.

Visit or call 800-314-0683 today.

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