Workers at The Pile use a lift to clear wreckage from Ground… (Clary/Getty)

As death toll of 9/11 responders nears 1,000, pols want autopsy standards to pinpoint causes

WASHINGTON - The staggering death toll for Ground Zero responders has soared past 916 - and still no one knows what really killed them.

Now, nine years after the terror attacks, doctors and some New York lawmakers are urging the federal Department of Health and Human Services to draft autopsy protocols to pinpoint 9/11-related fatalities, the Daily News has learned.

Astonishingly, there are no written standards to help doctors diagnose post-9/11 deaths, leaving a void that's wreaked enormous emotional pain and conflict on survivors.

"It was heart-wrenching," said Joe Zadroga, who watched his NYPD officer son, James, slowly deteriorate from scarred lungs until he died in 2007.

Relatives and friends know in their hearts what really killed the hero in their family - even if health officials refuse to recognize it.

"I mean, we knew what he died from. We dealt with it for four years," Zadroga added.

A medical examiner in New Jersey had ruled James Zadroga died from 9/11 exposure, only to have the city declare - for a time - that drug abuse killed him.

The city later relented, but Zadroga is one of only a handful of people whose death has been officially linked to the toxins of the ruined twin towers.

"Many of the responders who worked at the site and other survivors are dying," Reps. Jerry Nadler (D-Manhattan), Pete King (R-L.I.) and Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan) say in a letter to the feds, obtained by The News.

In a study released in June last year, state officials identified 836 responders who have died since 9/11. Advocates know of at least 80 more and doctors believe the total will be well over 1,000 in the next survey this year.

"We do not know to what extent WTC exposures contributed to their deaths, or whether their deaths were unrelated," the lawmakers wrote, seeking a set of guidelines.

Such autopsy rules could have huge impacts on people who believe terrorists are to blame for killing their loved ones.

"It is very emotional," said Jim Melius, who oversees the 9/11 health-monitoring program.

He says autopsies would help doctors understand Ground Zero illnesses and craft better treatments.

But autopsies could be double-edged, with some deaths determined to have had little to do with exposure.

"It needs to be carefully explained," Melius said, noting a lot can be at stake in work benefits and potential payouts from the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, stuck in Congress.

One advantage could be culling bogus claims that some Republicans say would plague a new 9/11 compensation act.

Joe Zadroga, for one, is all for it.

"I agree with setting some standards so there wouldn't be fraud," he said.

In most cases, it's an easy call. "Most of these guys who are dying are dying from lung conditions and cancers," he said. "My son's lungs were like leather."

mmcauliff@nydailynews.com