A Daughter, Her Father, 9/11 and “The Weight of Dust”
On the morning of September 11, 2001, eight-year-old Amy Gaines’ father, Scott, dropped her off at the school bus stop. It was supposed to be the first day of his last vacation before his retirement after 20 years as a New York City police officer.
But then, news broke that a plane — and then, a second one — had flown into the World Trade Center. So Scott Gaines headed to Ground Zero, where he would continue to work for the next two months.
Like many 9/11 first responders, he would later be diagnosed with cancer. In fact, the projected death toll from illnesses potentially linked to 9/11 is larger than the number of people who died that day.
In a new episode of The FRONTLINE Dispatch called “The Weight of Dust,” Amy Gaines — now a series coordinating producer at FRONTLINE — embarks on a deeply personal quest to understand the long arm of 9/11 through the story of what happened to her father and thousands of others diagnosed with illnesses believed to be caused by exposure to toxic chemicals at Ground Zero.
Her father had never liked talking about that day. And as a kid, she’d never wanted to bring it up. But once he was diagnosed with tonsil cancer in February of 2016, things changed: She felt a new urgency to learn everything she could about her dad’s experience on 9/11.
So when FRONTLINE decided to launch a new podcast the following year, and Gaines wanted to build her skills on how to conduct and record audio interviews, she decided to start at home — sitting down with her dad in the Long Island house where she grew up, and asking questions she had never asked before about his experience as a first responder on 9/11 and in its aftermath.
“I can picture it so clearly in my head,” she said of her conversations with her dad, in an interview several days before the episode’s release. “He’d be at this big, green chair that he sat in in our house, and I’m on our other couch, stretched out with the recorder.”
At first, she said, she just thought, “It’s a cool thing that we will have this for our family… This will become a part of our family story, this audio.”
But at the same time, she was researching what was in the dust at Ground Zero, what first responders like her dad were told at the time, and how the government had responded to potential 9/11-linked illnesses in the years since.
A strange coincidence, in which she started receiving messages meant for a different 9/11 first responder diagnosed with cancer who had previously had the cell phone number that was now hers, helped to cement something for Gaines: The idea that the country is only now beginning to see some of the fallout from one of the deadliest days in American history, and that exploring the long arm of 9/11 could make for a story with resonance far beyond her immediate family.
FRONTLINE Executive Producer Raney Aronson-Rath agreed, as did Sophie McKibben, series producer of The FRONTLINE Dispatch. And so, in addition to continuing to record with her father as his illness progressed, Gaines conducted scores of interviews (some in partnership with FRONTLINE senior reporter Sarah Childress). She spoke with her father’s friends, other first responders and people who had spent time at Ground Zero, doctors who were involved in the World Trade Center Health Program — and, in what would make for a key scene in the podcast episode, with Christine Todd Whitman, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency when 9/11 happened.
She also spoke with advocates who had pushed for Congress to create a compensation program for 9/11 first responders — a program whose deadline to apply is currently set for 2020, though doctors she spoke with say more cases of potentially 9/11-linked cancer will show up after that deadline.
But it was Gaines’ evolving conversations with her father as they confronted his mortality, their relationship, and 9/11’s ultimate impact on their family that would form the backbone of the story.
She traveled home to Long Island more and more frequently as he got sicker. They’d alternate intense days of tough conversations, with light, fun days of going to the movies. And Gaines found that approaching her father’s story as both a daughter and a reporter helped both of them to open up in ways they hadn’t in the past.
“One thing that [FRONTLINE Dispatch producer] Sophie [McKibben] told me early on in the process was, ‘You’ll be surprised once you actually have the recorder out: the dynamic does shift a little bit,” Gaines said.
Ultimately, she said, approaching her father in this way seemed to reassure him that by sharing the details of his 9/11-related trauma with her, he wouldn’t be burdening her — but helping her. He had kept so much inside, she said, out of an effort to protect her and their family from pain.
“He was in the Air Force before he was NYPD and he was a volunteer fire fighter before that,” she said. “So this kind of lifetime of service to others, and that’s the mentality: You go out, you do your job, and you come home, and you don’t talk about it … he would tell us the fun stories, not the tough stories.”
As Amy continued to work on the story, Scott’s cancer would spread from his tonsil to his lungs and his bones. Scott Gaines died in September of 2017, sixteen years after the towers fell and he answered the call.
For several months, his daughter took a break from working on the podcast episode telling his story, as she grieved. Craving normalcy, she immersed herself in the day-to-day details of her typical role at FRONTLINE — fact-checking other people’s reporting, and other people’s stories.
But then, she got back to work on her own.
She’s grateful, she said, to have had the time she needed to grapple with the layers of this story, and to have worked with McKibben and producer Michelle Mizner to weave those layers together. She recognizes that she’ll never know for sure if 9/11 caused the cancer that killed her father. But she also knows that, through this episode, she’s keeping his memory alive.
And she hopes that both his words, and this episode as a whole, send a message to others who are continuing to face the lingering impact of 9/11: “You’re seen. You’re heard.”