By DAVID B. CARUSO
The Associated Press
NEW YORK — The recent disclosure that a police detective who died of a lung ailment after toiling for months at ground zero may have been improperly injecting drugs has prompted a heated debate in New York City over what constitutes a hero.
The argument over the life and death of James Zadroga echoes a situation in Boston, where two lauded firefighters who died in a blaze were later found to have been intoxicated on the job. One had a blood alcohol level of 0.27 when he died. The other had cocaine in his system.
The disclosures revived old concerns about police officers and firefighters, whose high-stress jobs have long been thought to 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 lately 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 types of emergency 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 emergency service workers involved in the response 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," he said.
Do these types of flaws disqualify someone from hero status?
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg suggested earlier this week that Zadroga's public image had been altered by a medical examiner's report indicating that the detective had been grinding up and injecting pills, fragments of which later 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," he 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 may have 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 regular 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, and the group adds another 100 to the list every year.
The commission looks closely at the act of bravery itself, but makes no attempt to probe a person's background or moral character, said spokesman Douglas Chambers.
"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?"
Recipients over the years, he noted, have included a prison inmate who saved a guard from an attacking dog.
The question of whether Zadroga, or Boston firefighters Paul Cahill and Warren Payne, are heroes isn't one 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.
The family will meet with Bloomberg on Monday to ask for an apology about his comments and try to persuade him to ask the medical examiner to revisit his opinion that drug use caused the lung disease.
In Boston, Mayor Thomas Menino said this month that he was angry and disappointed over news of the autopy 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.