By Susan Schindehette
Updated February 19, 2007 12:00 PM
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Ceasar Borja, 21

New York, N.Y.

On a cold evening in January, young Ceasar Borja made the trip to visit his father in the intensive-care unit of New York City’s Mount Sinai Medical Center, bearing wonderful news. “I told him I was going to the State of the Union Address in Washington, D.C.,” says Borja, “and I would make him proud.”

A day later—and just two hours before the President’s speech—young Borja received a cell phone call and learned that his 52-year-old father, Cesar, a former Ground Zero worker, had just died. “I could hardly stand up. I felt like I had no bones in my legs,” he says. “But I wanted to stay to make my family proud.” Hours later he did just that, watching the President’s speech from a Senate gallery seat as an invited guest of U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, who calls Ceasar “the light of his family’s heart.”

Fighting for the rights of his father, a retired New York City police officer who was diagnosed with a fatal lung disease after working at Ground Zero, Ceasar has also taken up the cause of thousands of others who say they were sickened by the poisonous dust created when the Trade Towers collapsed in 1.6 million tons of debris. According to Robin Herbert, M.D., codirector of the federally funded World Trade Center Consortium Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program, which has so far examined close to half of the 40,000 Ground Zero workers and volunteers, “the nature of these exposures is unprecedented. There is no book we can turn to, to help us know what the health effects will be.”

Not all experts are convinced there is a direct link between the caustic dust from the Trade Towers and conditions ranging from asthma to cancer (see box). Even Cesar’s doctor, Mount Sinai pulmonologist Maria Padilla, recommends caution: “All we know is that he had an exposure,” she says. “We’re trying to understand better if that was the cause of this disease.”

Still, the family of Cesar, who immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines in 1976, believes that the dust was the culprit in their father’s lung disease. An NYPD veteran who retired in ’03, Cesar spent six months working 12- to 16-hour days at the site, first as part of the bucket brigade recovering body parts and then providing security. In the summer of 2002 he came down with a persistent cough. “He said, ‘Maybe I got this from 9/11,'” recalls his widow, Eva, 47. “At the time I thought it was nothing. I thought he would get rid of it.”

Despite prescribed medications for allergies and asthma, the coughing worsened, worrying Cesar’s wife and children—Ceasar, his brother Evan, 16, and sister Nhia, 12. “I said, ‘That’s not normal,'” recalls Ceasar, a journalism student at Manhattan’s Hunter College. But it was not until September ’06 that Cesar, a smoker who quit 10 years ago, read about Mount Sinai’s Ground Zero program. There, he was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, which hampers the lungs’ ability to process oxygen. He continued to decline, and on Jan. 23 Cesar died of PF and infectious pneumonia.

Today his devastated son Ceasar is determined to continue his mission to gain recognition and financial compensation for Ground Zero workers. On Jan. 31 President Bush met with the Borja family, a day after agreeing to extend funding of the World Trade Center medical monitoring and treatment program. “I was fighting for my father,” says Ceasar. “But now that he’s passed away, I’ll fight for everyone else.”

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