NEW YORK --
He became the face of post-Sept. 11 illness after his death in early 2006, galvanizing lawmakers and health care advocates to lobby for research and treatment for thousands who said the debris-filled air at ground zero made them sick.
James Zadroga, the 34-year-old retired police detective who died of respiratory failure after working hundreds of hours at the World Trade Center site, was often cited by those advocates as a "sentinel case" - the first health-related casualty linked to ground zero, suggesting there would be more to follow.
The city's medical examiner stunned that community this week in a letter declaring that Zadroga's death had nothing to do with the toxic air he breathed while working at ground zero.
Rejecting another medical examiner's autopsy that called Zadroga's death "directly related" to his post-Sept. 11 work, New York City Chief Medical Examiner Charles Hirsch said in a letter to Zadroga's family that his death was not caused by exposure to trade center dust.
"It is our unequivocal opinion, with certainty beyond doubt, that the foreign material in your son's lungs did not get there as the result of inhaling dust at the World Trade Center or elsewhere," said the letter to Zadroga's father. It was signed by Hirsch and another medical examiner, Michele Slone. The letter was obtained Thursday by The Associated Press.
Hirsch offered to explain his findings personally to Zadroga's family, who planned to meet with him Friday.
Zadroga became a symbol for the plight of ground zero workers whose health rapidly deteriorated in the months after they worked at the site of the 2001 terrorist attacks. He arrived after the twin towers collapsed and spent 470 hours sifting through the smoldering ruins. By the first anniversary of the attack, the nonsmoker was plagued by a constant cough.
He died in January 2006. A New Jersey medical examiner ruled that Zadroga died of inflammatory lung disease, had material "consistent with dust" in his lungs and damage to his heart and liver.
The autopsy was the first scientific evidence blaming a death directly on ground zero exposure. Lawmakers and health advocates regularly cite Zadroga's case as a key example of post-Sept. 11 illness when lobbying for billions of dollars for research and continuing care.
"It's shocking ... how can they be so callous?" said Zadroga's father, Joseph Zadroga, who broke down in tears last year before a congressional panel convened to study Sept. 11 health. "He had the acid reflux. He had short-term memory loss. ... He was on strong medications for the pain in his lungs."
Mayor Michael Bloomberg distanced himself from the medical examiner's office in a statement Thursday, saying the independent agency made its own decisions. The city is defending itself in a lawsuit filed by thousands of workers who say they were not properly protected from the dust that made them sick. Bloomberg has also lobbied the federal government for millions of dollars to treat and monitor the ailing workers.
The medical examiner's "determination in this case does nothing to change New York City's commitment to make sure that all who were affected by 9/11 get the health care they need," Bloomberg said.
Michael Palladino, president of Zadroga's union, suggested the ruling was related to the ongoing lawsuits against the city.
"I'm shocked and appalled that the medical examiner's office would send a letter to Mr. Zadroga, and stating that their unequivocal opinion, with certainty, beyond doubt, is that he didn't die from the World Trade Center, when in fact they can't tell me what he died from," he said. "I don't trust it."
Zadroga's father had asked Hirsch to review his son's case, hoping the medical examiner would add Zadroga's name to the official Sept. 11 death toll, as he did for a lawyer who died of lung disease five months after the attacks.
Hirsch decided in May that Felicia Dunn-Jones' exposure as she fled the collapsing twin towers contributed to the lung-scarring disease that killed her. He added her name to the attacks' death toll. Her name was read for the first time at this year's Sept. 11 anniversary ceremony, and officials plan to list her name on the Sept. 11 memorial.
Zadroga and others had hoped for similar recognition for his son. Hirsch has rejected at least other four families' requests to amend the death certificates of people who died of illnesses they attribute to post-Sept. 11 exposure.
Associated Press writer Devlin Barrett in Washington contributed to this report.