NEW YORK (PIX11) — Heather Ward and her son Andrew, then 11, were left without Danny Ward’s police pension and health benefits when the retired officer died suddenly on February 17, 2020.
He had been battling PTSD and breathing problems for years, after responding to the 9/11 terror attacks, without getting help. He never smoked, but his autopsy showed evidence of emphysema from exposure at ground zero.
Lawyers from the Police Benevolent Association decided to go to bat for Heather Ward.
On Flag Day 2023, the pension board voted to approve a “line of duty” pension for the widow, after the medical board ruled Ward’s health problems were linked to toxic exposure in the rubble of the collapsed World Trade Center towers.
“He was there almost six months, maybe closer to seven,” Heather Ward told PIX11 News. “I learned after he died that he was volunteering, a couple of days a week, to stay and do work on ‘the pile.’ But he never talked about that. Ever.”
Heather Ward was not married to the officer when terrorists flew jets into the World Trade Center towers, but the couple had been dating for about a year. She remembered Danny Ward would show up at her apartment in Woodside, Queens, and leave his shoes in the hallway.
“He said, ‘Heather, I don’t know what’s on my shoes,'” the widow recalled.
The couple got engaged in 2005, shortly after Danny Ward retired from the NYPD.
That is the same year Ward started having nightmares, according to his family.
“The nightmares continued up until he died,” Heather Ward remembered. “He was definitely struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. After he died, I found out what he had found while he was working on the pile. He found a woman’s head. He found a fireman’s torso, still in bunker gear.”
By 2016, Heather Ward said her husband started having breathing issues.
She sometimes loaned him her inhaler, because he resisted going to the World Trade Center health program, believing other first responders had more pressing health problems than he did. It is a common issue that Patrick Hendry, president of the Police Benevolent Association, has witnessed among many officers, post-9/11.
“We know there are many of our members that are suffering in silence,” Hendry told PIX11 News, “and we want them to reach out for help.”
Heather Ward said even as her husband started feeling sicker, he encouraged her desire to become a pastry chef.
In 2017, for eight months, Danny Ward took charge of getting their son, Andrew, out to school while she left early every morning for culinary school. That was followed by a three-month externship.
“He never complained, never said a word about it,” Heather Ward recalled. “He was happy that I was pursuing my dream.”
Heather Ward said she had her own struggles working with bread dough.
“And I used to come home, and I used to cry, and I would say, ‘Danny, I’m so bad at this,'” Ward recounted.
She said her husband responded with an inspiring phrase, made famous by Tom Hanks in the movies.
“Danny used to say to me, ‘There’s no crying in baseball,'” Ward said.
The widow remembered the next day, she would always get up and go back to work.
“It was very difficult,” Heather Ward said. “And I loved every second of it.”
Heather Ward started working at Blacksmith Bakery in Long Beach about five years ago, and she has thrived in her profession.
But Danny Ward was getting sicker.
The husband and wife kept up with the hearings in Washington, D.C. when critically ill first responders like Detective Lou Alvarez testified in 2019 about the need for extended health care benefits.
Danny Ward finally made an appointment to see a specialist in February 2020.
But three days before the appointment, Heather Ward called him from Florida.
She was there with their son, visiting her parents.
“And I think that he was actively dying when I called him that morning,” Heather Ward said, as her eyes filled up with tears. “And I never talked to him again.”
Heather Ward said an autopsy revealed her husband had the presence of emphysema in his lungs.
“He never smoked,” the widow said.
Heather Ward and her son lost Ward’s pension and his health benefits as soon as her husband died.
She decided to call lawyers at the Police Benevolent Association for help.
“Unfortunately, with our city, everything is about saving money,” PBA President, Patrick Hendry, observed.
“They have the responsibility to take care of the families who are left behind.”
Hendry said the police union has lost at least 330 of its members to post-9/11 illnesses.
“We’ve encouraged our members from day one to sign up for the World Trade Center health program,” Hendry said.
Heather Ward said gathering records was daunting.
“I had to go and get every medical record from 2001 and on,” she said.
Some of the family’s records were destroyed in the flooding caused by Super Storm Sandy, which decimated parts of Long Beach. The couple had to raise their home 15 feet, with help from the New York Rising program.
Heather Ward said she was really struggling the last three years financially, especially trying to provide for her son, now 14.
“He wanted to join a ‘travel’ baseball team, and I couldn’t afford it,” Ward said. “But the coach worked with me.”
Ward found out on June 14, that she was approved for a “line of duty” pension, which means she will receive her husband’s pension for life. She also received some good news about her son, Andrew.
“He’s going to be the captain of his baseball team, and I’m really proud of him,” Heather Ward said with a smile.
Ward said her son had flourished with help from the organization, Tuesday’s Children, which has helped thousands of children impacted by the World Trade Center attacks.
We met Ward at Blacksmith Bakery, where she was kneading dough on the morning shift.
“Every day that I go in there, I can feel Danny with me, while I’m doing it,” Heather Ward said. “And I can hear him in my head when I have trouble with dough. I just hear him saying, ‘There’s no crying in baseball.'”