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What makes someone a hero?

David B. Caruso
Associated Press
Vail, CO Colorado
Richard Drew/APJoe Zadroga, father of New York City Police Detective James Zadroga, holds a copy of "Aftermath," a collection of photographs from Ground Zero, during a news conference in New York, Tuesday.
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NEW YORK ” The conclusion that a police detective who died of a lung ailment after toiling for months at ground zero may have been injecting drugs has led to a heated debate about what constitutes a hero.

The argument over James Zadroga’s death echoes a situation in Boston, where two lauded firefighters who died in a blaze were later found to have been impaired on the job. One had a blood-alcohol level of 0.27; the other had cocaine in his system.

The disclosures renewed concerns that police officers’ and firefighters’ jobs may make them prime candidates for drug and alcohol abuse.

The inner turmoil of these everyday heroes has been a staple of TV cop shows for decades, and more recently in dramas like FX television’s “Rescue Me,” about a group of New York City firefighters who go home to lives of alcoholism, depression and family disarray.

Experts say there may be truth behind the fiction.

“We might think of them as stress resilient,” said Dr. Terence Keane, who heads the behavioral science division of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.

But the reality, he said, is that the on-the-job pressure for these emergency service workers can be overwhelming. “Their job is 95 percent boredom and 5 percent terror,” he said.

The pressure can grow even greater after a major disaster like the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Studies have indicated that a number of first responders suffered from post-tramatic stress disorder.

“The amount of loss was so extreme that it could have exacerbated existing problems with mood, anxiety, alcohol and drugs,” Keane said.

The question is, do such flaws disqualify someone from hero status?

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg suggested this week that Zadroga’s public image had been altered by a medical examiner’s report indicating that the detective had injected ground-up pills, which lodged in his lungs.

“We wanted to have a hero. There are plenty of heroes. It’s just that in this case, the science says this was not a hero,” Bloomberg said Monday.

Later, confronted with public outrage over his comments, Bloomberg backpedalled, calling Zadroga “a great NYPD officer” who had repeatedly risked his life for the city and had gotten sick from breathing contaminated air at ground zero.

He said it would be up to the public to decide whether Zadroga was a hero.

“You can use your own definition,” Bloomberg said. “I think it’s a question of how you want to define what a hero is.”

The Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, a Pittsburgh-based philanthropy that awards medals and cash grants to people who perform heroic acts, doesn’t have a problem deciding who deserves recognition. As of this month, 9,130 people had received a Carnegie Medal.

The commission looks at the act of bravery itself, not the person’s background or moral character, spokesman Douglas Chambers said.

“Whether that person had a shady background, or had been incarcerated or was a child abuser … none of that information is important to us,” Chambers said. “We don’t care. All we care about is the act. Did that rescuer risk his or her life to an extraordinary degree?”

Past recipients, he noted, included a prison inmate who saved a guard from an attacking dog.

Whether Zadroga or Boston firefighters Paul Cahill and Warren Payne are heroes isn’t a question the Carnegie commission will address; with some exceptions, the group generally focuses on recognizing civilians who are drawn unexpectedly into extraordinary circumstances.

Zadroga’s family has disputed the allegations that his son took any medications improperly, and at least two other medical experts have concluded that the material found in his respiratory system included microscopic shards of World Trade Center debris.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said this month he was angry and disappointed over the autopsy reports of Cahill and Payne, who died in a fire last summer, but also suggested that the hero label still sticks.

“Two of Boston’s finest died doing their job keeping our city safe,” he said.


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