On Sept. 11, 2001, former New York City Fire Chief Jim Riches lost his son, also a firefighter, when the North Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed to a heap of rubble.
Four years later, he nearly lost his own life to a severe lung complication that he says is a direct result of the recovery efforts in which he was involved in the months following the tragedy.
"My lungs shut down in 2005," he says. "I was in a coma for 16 days, hooked up to a machine that let me breathe. They told my family I had five hours to live. This was all attributed to 9/11 [by the doctors]."
Now, Riches, 58, fears that up to 11,000 firefighters and other rescue workers may lose their battle for compensation for what they say are illnesses caused by the toxic dust from the World Trade Center, after a news report this week questioned the cause of death of a New York Police detective repeatedly described as the first emergency responder to die of a 9/11-related illness.
The report, published in the New Yorker magazine, says that a 2003 biopsy of Detective James Zadroga showed no signs of some of the toxic chemicals that have been blamed for many of the illnesses 9/11 recovery workers have suffered.
Zadroga's lawyer said that while the 2003 biopsy was "unremarkable," a later autopsy and other medical tests showed serious illness allegedly caused by Zadroga's work at the World Trade Center site. He said Zadroga would be alive if it were not for his work there.
It remains unclear what impact, if any, the controversy over Zadroga's death will have on the cases of thousands of others who are seeking compensation for the health conditions they say were linked to their work in the aftermath of 9/11.
But because Zadroga's case has become a symbol for those seeking compensation, Riches says the publicity generated by the report could lead many to mistakenly believe that those claiming injury were not harmed by the air around the World Trade Center site.
"What happened in the Zadroga case, I don't know," he says. "But it seems to me a lot of people are trying to bad-mouth this case and say that for the rest of the cases that these health effects are not even related to 9/11."
The new report represents the latest chapter in the saga over what exactly led to the illness that brought about Zadroga's death -- as well as the illnesses suffered by other rescue workers at the site. It also highlights the difficulty of proving that the trade center dust sickened workers.
The collapse of the World Trade Center towers brought 200,000 tons of steel, 600,000 square feet of window glass, 5,000 tons of asbestos, 12,000 miles of electric cables and 425,000 cubic yards of concrete crashing down into lower Manhattan, according to a joint city and federal report issued in September 2002.
The calamity, caused by a passenger jet that was flown into the building, produced a caustic cauldron of concrete dust, glass fibers and cancer-causing asbestos, as well as particles of lead, chlorine, antimony, aluminum, magnesium, iron, zinc and calcium. About 24,000 gallons of jet fuel and burning plastics released carcinogens including dioxins, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls and polychlorinated furins, according to a 2004 scientific analysis that called the collapse the "largest acute environmental disaster that has ever befallen New York City."