Transcript

The Weight of Dust

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Amy Gaines:

So it’s 2016 and I’m living in Boston. My parents call me to tell me they’re coming for the weekend. A little unannounced. I’m surprised but I’m happy they’re coming. My mom says, “You should meet us at the hotel.” So I came to their hotel. And we did the normal you know hugging, catching up, so happy to see you. And then they told me to sit down. And my dad sat across from me and said “Ok I have cancer.”

Scott Gaines:

Dr. Gibalski took one look in my throat and he looked at me and he said, “That’s cancer.” I didn’t hear a word that man said for 15 minutes after that. I know he was talking, because his mouth was moving but all I kept hearing in my head was cancer, cancer, cancer, cancer, cancer.”

Amy Gaines:

My dad had strep throat all the time, so he hadn’t really thought much of the pain he’d been having. And anyway, he hated going to the doctor. So, by the time he actually went, there was a bulge on the side of his throat like he’d accidentally swallowed a Ping-Pong ball.

Scott Gaines:

And I asked him what could cause it. And he said there’s three causes to tonsil cancer. The first one is smoking. I’ve never smoked a day in my life.

Amy Gaines:

The doctor said the other causes were excessive drinking, or the HPV virus. But my dad hardly ever drank, and he’d tested negative for HPV.

Scott Gaines:

I’m thinking, well, there’s gotta be something else. And I remember asking him “Is it possible this is from the World Trade Center?” And then he asked me if I was a responder to that and I said yes, and he said it’s very possible.”

Amy Gaines:

My dad was a New York City police officer for 20 years. And one of the last things he did before he retired was respond to the September 11th attacks. When he told me his cancer could be connected to that day, it was like a punch in the gut. It’s hard to explain, but it was almost more painful for me to hear that than it was to hear about the cancer in the first place. I tried to picture in my head how this could have possibly happened…but my memories of 9/11 were fuzzy at best. I’d been a little kid, kept in school, away from the details. I do remember him coming home exhausted from the long shifts and drawing him pictures that I thought might make him feel better.

Scott Gaines:

It was very disturbing for you. But, you knew that something very bad happened. And you knew you had to help me out.

Amy Gaines:

My dad had never liked talking about September 11th, and as a kid I’d never wanted to bring it up, but now suddenly, I did. I felt like needed to learn everything I could about that horrible day – that day that I thought we’d left in the past.

Raney Aronson:

You’re listening to The FRONTLINE Dispatch. I’m Raney Aronson, Executive Producer of the PBS series FRONTLINE. Today’s story about a daughter and her father hits especially close to home. The reporter is our Series Coordinating Producer Amy Gaines. It was hard for us to watch Amy have to face her father’s cancer, but she had a story she wanted to tell with deep emotional resonance for all of us who lived through 9/11. It’s a story about the long reach of that day.

Amy Gaines:

Sept 11, 2001. My dad dropped me off at the bus stop that day. I was 8 years old.

Scott Gaines:

It was supposed to be the first day of my final vacation before retiring. I had just walked out to put you on the school bus. And one of the neighbors, Eddie, had come out and he said that there was a report that a twin-engine plane had just hit the world trade center. So, you got on the bus and I went inside, and I knew it was going to be on the news. And I turned on the news. And then while the anchor people were talking about what’s going on, they have live cameras on it. And that’s when the second plane hit.

TV Archive:

“Oh there’s another one! Another plane just hit! Oh my God, another plane has just hit another building…”

Scott Gaines:

That’s when I called Mom at work and I told her I needed to go into work. Which did not make her happy.

Amy Gaines:

He drove into Queens, and then packed into a patrol car with other officers. They headed to Ground Zero.

TV Archive:

It’s my understanding that these evacuations in high rises happening across New York City. Fifty thousand people scheduled to work this day in the twin towers.

Scott Gaines:

I remember the first thing they had us do was the evacuation of civilians in the area on the tour buses. They just got a whole bunch of those big tour buses that you always see all over the place. And they were using them like life boats.

Amy Gaines:

And then around 5pm, hours after both towers had fallen, another building that had been burning nearby started to buckle.

Scott Gaines:

We were standing over just north of 7 World Trade Center. And all of the sudden I started hearing all the air horns on the fire trucks start to sound. At first, I couldn’t understand why and then I remembered, that’s an audible signal to firefighters in the building that a collapse of the building is imminent. And I turned around and looked, and 7 World Trade Center was going over.

Amy Gaines:

The building and immediate area had been cleared hours earlier. So, no one was killed in that collapse. But the shock of another building falling, and the monster cloud of dust and debris that billowed out in all directions – sent my dad running for fear of his life Once the sun set, my dad was given his next assignment. To escort a chaplain to hospitals.

Scott Gaines:

The chaplain was going around giving last rites to people. And we were just basically standing around, making ourselves as useful as possible. And at one point …Sorry I can still see this in my head right now. At one point I was standing next to a bed with somebody who was very badly injured and he thought I was a chaplain and asked me to give him last rites. And I had no idea what to say to the guy, but I listened to him, and then he just died.

Amy Gaines:

Sometime the next morning, my dad came home. But nearly 3000 people never did.

He’d continue to work at the site for the next two months. And then, as planned, he retired. He’d escaped. Or at least, we thought he had.

After my dad’s diagnosis, I started visiting home more often. I brought my recorder with me, thinking maybe I’d make a story or just have a record of his voice. My dad had started treatment, and it was going pretty well. One of the doctors even told us the cancer could soon be in the rear-view mirror. So, mostly, we were feeling positive.

One night I tagged along when he was meeting up with a group of buddies he used to work with, affectionately known as The Highway Boys.

Amy Gaines:

How often do you guys get together?

Kenneth Leydon:

Once a month I think they try to do this.

Amy Gaines: Even after he’d retired, my dad still loved the job. He’d grown up wanting to be a police officer. His dad had been one, too. You could tell almost by looking at my dad that he was a cop. For most of my life, he had a mustache – most motorcycle cops did for some reason. My mom said it made him look like Tom Selleck when they met.

Jimmy Murphy:

Your father is one of the nicest people I ever ran across.

Amy Gaines:

Well that’s good because I think that. But it’s nice that other people think that.

Jimmy Murphy:

And coming from me who doesn’t like a hell of a lot of people. That’s saying something. Right Scotty? I don’t like a hell of a lot of people, but I like you.

Amy Gaines: A lot of these guys are also retired now. Their names are familiar to me. Jimmy. Kenny. Dave. Some of them remember meeting me as a kid when I’d visit my dad at work, take a ride on his police motorcycle. Like my dad, many of them responded on 9/11. And over the years, they’ve known other cops with illnesses thought to be related to that day.

Kenneth Leydon:

I know what your father did during 9/11. He was exposed to a lot of problems.

Amy Gaines:

Do you ever wonder why some guys are getting sick and why some guys don’t?

Dave Gallart:

I’ve thought about it a million times since that day. And, I can’t explain it. I can’t explain it. Luck of the draw. Who knows?

Amy Gaines: I had these questions too. My dad had agreed to let me keep interviewing him, but talking to him about this chapter of his life was hard for both of us. He would tell me things I’d never known – things that had been kept from me as a kid – like that he had been haunted by flashbacks for a long time after the attacks.

Scott Gaines:

Um, quite frankly, um, I was unable to go anywhere near the World Trade Center site for years.

Amy Gaines:

He told me one story that was especially hard to hear. Years ago, he said he went to the Natural History Museum in DC. He turned a corner, and there in front of him was an exhibit about 9/11. It really caught him off guard, and he became overwhelmed with emotion. He had to be escorted out of the building.

Looking back, it should have been obvious, but my dad never wanted to go to sleep. Because he didn’t want to have nightmares. He would fall sleep in our living room, instead of his bed. I never understood how someone could sleep with their shoes on, and the lights on. But I think he preferred it that way.

Scott Gaines:

A lot of the things that I saw are still inside, and I’ll probably end up going to talk to somebody about it. Just to kind of get it out.

Amy Gaines:

I hated that my dad’s cancer could be related to 9/11. It was hard enough to accept that he was sick, but the fact that it was also dredging up all of these old memories? That felt doubly cruel.

I needed a way to make sense of it, and the easiest way for me to do that was to treat it like work. After graduating from high school, I’d moved away from home. Finished college and started working for FRONTLINE. It’s now actually my job to check facts and ask questions – which was great, because I had hundreds of them. First question: What was my dad exposed to that made him sick?

I grabbed my recorder and went to talk to people who might help me understand. The first person was Anthony DePalma. He was a reporter with the New York Times who followed the aftermath of 9/11. One of his main obsessions was the dust.

Anthony DePalma:

You were talking about two one hundred-ten stories buildings that were reduced not to rubble, but to dust.

Amy Gaines: DePalma told me that after the buildings fell, dust was everywhere. It covered people as they ran away. It piled inches high on cars and phone booths. It’s estimated that over 200,000 tons of building materials spread out over miles of lower Manhattan. Dust even sifted through cracks in windows, and blanketed entire apartments. From the pictures, it looks like someone had gone through and painted every surface grey. DePalma has a vial of that dust still sitting in his office.

Anthony DePalma:

In that dust hundreds of substances all mixed up. The particles of the shoes that the secretary at the Canter-Fitzgerald was wearing. The velvety part of the back of a picture frame that somebody had their child in. Clothes that people wore, the furniture, the rugs, everything that was in those buildings. And pulverized so fine that none of it was identifiable. Except for one thing: Human hair.

Amy Gaines:

The dust also contained toxic chemicals.

Anthony DePalma:

We knew that there were TV monitors that would release lead and cadmium. We knew that those buildings were built with asbestos. And if asbestos is released in a room, it’s so light and fine it could be suspended in the air for months.

Amy Gaines:

Here’s what else was in the dust. Benzene which causes leukemia. Silica which causes lung cancer. Lead which may cause stomach cancer. Asbestos which may cause lung, head and neck cancers. That’s what my dad had.

As first responders continued to work at Ground Zero, the dust would get stirred up every time a beam was lifted or a piece of metal was moved. And to make it worse, for over a month, a jet-fuel fire burned, releasing toxic fumes into the air. Fumes that could cause respiratory cancers. Anthony DePalma, the Times reporter, said masks should have been essential. But that a lot of responders didn’t wear them.

Anthony DePalma:

Remember during those first two weeks, they were looking for survivors. They were just not going to leave anybody there because they didn’t have a mask.

Amy Gaines:

There were scientists in New York who saw what was happening and felt like they needed to warn somebody.

Anthony DePalma:

They’re watching the buildings come down and immediately, are on the phone saying you guys have to be protected. ‘I’ll bring down the masks for you. We’ll start to set up a screening. Because this stuff is dangerous.’ But they had to go up against the government that was saying, ‘There’s no immediate danger outside of the pile.’

Amy Gaines:

Records show that dozens of federal & local agencies were attempting to make sense of the chaos, and provide guidance to the people of New York. FEMA, OSHA, CDC, EPA – it was an acronym soup. But the messages about the air-quality were confusing. A few days after 9/11, Christine Todd Whitman, the EPA Administrator at the time, said this about the air:

Christine Todd Whitman:

It’s not a health concern. Now, I’m not saying it’s nice. I’m not saying it smells nice. I’m not saying this is nice. But from a real health problem, we don’t have to worry.

Amy Gaines:

I went back and looked at press releases from the time. In one from September 18th, EPA Administrator Whitman said: “Given the scope of the tragedy from last week, I am glad to reassure the people of New York … that their air is safe to breath and their water is safe to drink.” Later that month, New York City’s mayor, Rudy Giuliani, said the same thing.

Rudolph Giuliani:

The air quality is safe and acceptable. I know there are people that are concerned about it and people that are worried about it. But that’s um, that’s just the reality.

Amy Gaines:

These messages – and many more like them – played over and over on the news. They were supposed to be aimed at the general public, not the first responders working on the pile. But first responders heard them, and took off their masks.

The city of New York did hang signs and distribute pamphlets urging workers at Ground Zero to wear masks. And the EPA did note, usually at the end of statements, that workers at Ground Zero should wear respirators. OSHA – the Occupational Safety & Health Administration - drew a green line around the pile. The idea: if you’re inside the line, you should be wearing a mask. But the rules weren’t enforced. As Anthony DePalma, the reporter from the Times put it…

Anthony DePalma:

The impression was that it was okay.

Amy Gaines:

President Geroge W. Bush pushed to re-open Wall Street as soon as possible. The opening bells rang on the morning of Sept 17th. And many people were back to work in lower Manhattan less than 2 weeks after the attacks.

Anthony DePalma:

You’re talking about the major financial center, New York City, being attacked. And getting New York City back on its feet. Showing the world that New York City was not beaten. That New York City was going to come back, was a very important factor. Any of those attempts by the government, to sort of send out signals of a positive sense, that we can get through this were an important part of the recovery. Unfortunately, they didn’t always work to protect the people who needed to be protected.

Amy Gaines:

Some people returned to work to find their offices still covered in dust. An alarming smell still lingered in the air outside.

And confusion about whether masks were needed continued, for both the workers and the public.

Anthony DePalma:

There were some people who felt that if the responders were wearing the mask, then there was a contradiction to what government had said – which was that it was safe. Well if it’s safe, why are they wearing a mask? On the other hand, the people who were worried about the smoke, regardless of what the government said, who went back to work, some of them wore masks, or some of the them were tempted to wear masks, but felt it was in some way selfish or unpatriotic. I mean, there were 343 firefighters who were killed, and I’m worried about a little bit of smoke?

Amy Gaines:

Next time I was home, I asked my dad if he’d worn a mask. He said he did, for a few days, until he heard a speech made by the EPA administrator, Christine Todd Whitman.

Scott Gaines:

Basically, she gave a speech and said, “The air is safe to breathe”. Once they said, “Oh, the air is safe to breathe,” we really stopped worrying about wearing face masks and respirator masks. Quite frankly, they were a pain in the butt to wear, especially when you wear glasses like I do, and you're wearing a motorcycle helmet. Once they said the air was safe to breathe, the masks came off.

Amy Gaines:

After the mask came off, my dad worked at the site for nearly two months. He told me that the dust was so thick, it was clogging the filters on the motorcycles.

Amy Gaines:

Do you remember thinking, “If the dust is clogging up these motorcycles, what else is it doing?”

Scott Gaines:

Oh, absolutely. I mean, even just regular dust particles and dirt particles or whatever in the air can affect you, so I remember thinking, “Well, this is probably not a good thing,” but we were assured that it was safe to breathe. Quite frankly, we had more things to worry about than what we might or might not be breathing.

Amy Gaines:

What would you say the majority of your time there was spent doing?

Scott Gaines:

They used us for everything. At one point, they had a line of about 50 refrigerated tractor trailers lined up on West Street. They felt that they were gonna be getting a lot of whole bodies. They wanted to have the refrigerated trucks so that they could keep them preserved. But unfortunately, it turned out that they didn't get a lot of whole bodies, and they didn't need the big tractor trailers. We would escort human remains out of the area to the various morgues. They kept looking for survivors well into the third week.

It was actually to the point where they brought in cell phone detecting equipment and they set it up around the World Trade Center in the hopes that if somebody was trapped in the rubble, that they could then use direction finding to home in on and try and get them out. Unfortunately, after the first day or so, there were no survivors. But nobody wanted to give up hope.

Amy Gaines:

Over time, that hope faded – and all that was left were questions. One of them was how the miscommunication about dangers in the dust could have happened, and if anyone would be held accountable. I was now wondering that, too.

Amy Gaines:

Almost immediately after the attacks, doctors started treating 9/11 responders for deep, hacking coughs. Severe throat and nasal irritations. Respiratory distress. Decreased lung capacities. Severe heartburn, also known as GERD. Eventually, sarcoidosis, scarring of the lungs. Accusations flew.

People wondered if officials had been too optimistic about the air quality.

In 2003, the EPA’s Inspector General led an investigation to evaluate just that. The investigation found that the EPA’s messaging to the press was too reassuring, too soon. That the EPA had, in some cases, published statements without the science to support them.

I read the report and spoke to the woman who led the investigation, Nikki Tinsley. She told me her team discovered that some early drafts of press releases were modified to seem more reassuring.

Nikki Tinsley:

The details of these changes, the analysts found in a box under somebody's desk at EPA one night. When they found it, and then they talked to the folks at EPA about it, it was huge. You know, these cautionary words, had been removed from the press release before it went to the press.

Tinsley’s investigation concluded that in the immediate aftermath, the message was confidence, not caution. And it had been influenced by pressure from the White House.

Eventually these findings, and the government’s response, played out on a public stage.

House representative:

Good afternoon.

Amy Gaines:

In 2007, Congress held hearings, and tried to hold people accountable.

House representative:

Today, the sub-committee begins its investigation into possible substantive due process violations arising from the Environmental Protection Agency’s handling of air quality issues, following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Amy Gaines:

House Representatives sat across people from the EPA, OSHA, and the White House. The CSPAN footage is actually pretty gripping. Here’s Representative Keith Ellison talking to the EPA’s Christine Whitman.

Rep. Keith Ellison:

Do you now feel that you spoke a little bit too broadly and a little bit too soon about the actual quality of the air and the water?

Christine Todd Whitman:

Every test that we have—

Rep. Keith Ellison:

Excuse me, Governor.

Christine Todd Whitman:

Congressman, you know, it's fine to go through the yes and nos. But I think it's important for people to understand that these were not whims, these were not decisions by a politician. Everything I said was based on what I was hearing from professionals. My son was in Building 7 on that day, Congressman. And I almost lost him. This is as personal to me as it is to anyone.

Rep. Keith Ellison:

Governor, excuse me. I'm not going to allow you to turn this into a personal thing. It's personal for the people out here too, Governor.

Christine Todd Whitman:

It's personal with everybody.

Amy Gaines:

Every agency that was questioned deflected responsibility. In their testimony, they insisted that the statements about public safety were accurate and based in science.

And besides, the EPA said, the enforcement of masks for first responders was out of their control. The city was in charge of that. Later, Giuliani would point back at the EPA – they’d said the air was safe. Frankly, there was a lot of pointing fingers. At the hearing, and beyond. Lawsuits were eventually filed against the city. A group of New Yorkers even sued Whitman herself, but the court found she wasn’t personally responsible.

I asked my dad what he thought about all this.

Scott Gaines:

Well, you can't really put it on any one person. The root cause of this is some disaffected knucklehead. I don't even like to say his name that instigated the entire terrorist plot and he caused it. However, the follow on from the federal government and the EPA contributed to it greatly. I think they gambled. And they gambled and lost

Amy Gaines:

I reached out to Christine Todd Whitman, who left the EPA in 2003. It was her name that came up almost every time I asked people about this story – well known by first responders, New Yorkers, and my dad.

In 2016, coincidentally the same year my dad was diagnosed, Whitman spoke with a reporter from The Guardian. She said “I’m very sorry that people are sick. I’m very sorry that people are dying, and if the EPA and I in any way contributed to that, I’m sorry.”

It was the first time she’d ever said anything like it, but it wasn’t the apology first responders wanted.

They continued to accuse her of not doing a better job of communicating the risk, said she gave into White House pressure.

Out on her farm in New Jersey, I asked her about it.

Amy Gaines:

Do you feel as though the communications at the time were influenced by politics of the moment in any way?

Christine Todd Whitman:

I don't think so, no. I think in some of the way they wanted to handle the press releases was to reassure. But within the boundaries of what was safe. Not to reassure to the point of ignoring a health, a real health hazard. But to reassure that life was going to go on. We're stronger than this, we're going to beat back these people and they're not going to get us.

Amy Gaines:

As for the statement she made on Sept 18th, the one my dad says he heard before taking off his mask, Whitman says the media focused on the message that the air was safe, not that responders should be wearing masks.

Christine Todd Whitman:

I should have immediately said, "On the pile they should wear respirators.” That part of the message was lost. And you look back and say, "I should have said it another way. There should have been another way to say it. And that's, as I say, I absolutely believe that people that worked on the pile who didn't wear respirators are suffering today from it.

Amy Gaines:

Before I left, I asked Whitman if she had anything else to say.

Christine Todd Whitman:

This was an awful, awful time and every time you come to an anniversary of 9/11, I just want to crawl in a hole for the day. Because I know that what's going to be said, part of it is going to be, well it's all Whitman's fault.

Amy Gaines:

I left the interview feeling unsatisfied. I thought that talking to Whitman, the person whose name had been most associated with the aftermath, would give me, or maybe even my dad some amount of closure.

I didn’t get that. But, I was a lot closer to understanding how 9/11 could have actually caused my dad’s cancer. And, the sicknesses of so many other first responders.

In 2006, a one of those responders died. His name was James Zadroga. He was 34 years old.

After working at Ground Zero, he came down with a series of debilitating respiratory illnesses. The doctor who conducted his autopsy said it showed that his death was directly linked to 9/11.

Zadroga’s story quickly became a symbol in an effort to get the federal government to cover health care and compensation for sick first responders.

At first, some Republicans refused to back the measure. They called it a slush fund, but the responders got a little help from some famous friends, like Jon Stewart.

Jon Stewart:

“This is making me angry and I feel like screaming. But I’m unsure of how far my neck veins can safely bulge out of my neck.”

Amy Gaines:

It took years, but eventually in 2010, Congress did pass a bill. And they named it after James Zadroga.

One part of the legislation pays for healthcare. The other part covers lost income, and also pain and suffering.

Over 90,000 people have benefited from the Zadroga Act, which has cost the government billions. At first, it was mostly for respiratory and digestive disorders. But now, we are getting to the point that more cancers – which can take longer to show up and are more costly to treat – are starting to appear.

Back on Long Island, my dad and I went through the mounds of paperwork he had pulled together to apply for the health and compensation programs.

Scott Gaines:

What’s this. That’s not it. This is my pet scan report. And this is just a report on the physical.

Amy Gaines:

When I tell people about this process, to have your illness become certified, they think there’s some magic test. But really, it’s just a list of questions. Were you there? How long were you there? Can we have proof?

Scott Gaines:

Basically, it’s just asking me what I did around the World Trade Center the days I was down there and how many hours I was there.

This is my memo book.

Amy Gaines:

My dad had held on to his old police memo books. That helped to account for his time.

Scott Gaines:

Here’s where it starts. World Trade Center. WTC. Ten o’clock start, which is when I got there. And it just shows what I did on various dates.

Amy Gaines:

And then these are signed by your supervising officers.

Scott Gaines:

Right.

Amy Gaines:

And then there are other documents considered, too.

Scott Gaines:

The affidavits were filled out by other officers. You know, who I worked for. Description of what I did. And there’s biopsy reports, and all that stuff. As to what the cancer is, and lab reports. Pet scan reports and all that.

Amy Gaines:

This is a lot of paperwork.

Scott Gaines:

Oh yeah. And I know there’s more. I just have to find it.

Amy Gaines:

The paperwork is processed and eventually, you get a letter in the mail.

Scott Gaines:

‘Dear Scott Gaines, this letter is to inform you that after reviewing the medical information provided by the Long Island Clinical Center of Excellence, SUNY that the World Trade Center Health Program has certified the following health conditions as covered for treatment benefits. It says as listed in the Zadroga Act.

Amy Gaines:

There it was. My dad’s cancer. Officially linked to 9/11 – signed by the federal government. It meant that his treatment would be covered. And that my family would see some money – probably around $250,000, in compensation. Everything was official now.

Then one night in my newsroom, I found another story about James Zadroga – the police officer the bill was named after. It said that after his death, there were some questions that came up around his story. The Chief Medical Examiner of New York City did a second autopsy that disputed the initial results. He said he did believe Zadroga had a lung condition. He also believed he was a drug addict. And that his lungs were damaged by crushed prescription pills. And that, not 9/11, was the cause of his death.

Suddenly, it felt like the walls were closing in. The circumstances of Zadroga’s case were unique, but it made me wonder: how can we be sure about any of the individual cases that have been linked to 9/11? How could I be sure of my dad’s?

Consider this: The World Trade Center program covers essentially any type of cancer you can develop. If you can prove, that you were at Ground Zero and were exposed, and years later, you get cancer, it gets certified.

Zadroga’s story planted a seed of doubt. But I kept digging. And while what I found wasn’t definitive, it was compelling – the men and women who responded on that day, as a whole, are clearly sicker than those who didn’t. And I started hearing stories about other people, who had just been near Ground Zero, who were sick too.

Michele Lent Hirsch:

The smell…It actually stayed for months. It wasn’t just something while we were running away, while the buildings were burning. It was for months and months that lower Manhattan had this very alarming acrid chemical bad smell.

Amy Gaines:

Michele Lent Hirsh seemed like a good person for me to talk things through with. Today she is a health reporter and author, but on 9/11 she was in high school just down the street from the World Trade Center. After seeing the towers had been hit, she evacuated the building and joined the crowds outside.

Michele Lent Hirsch:

And when you looked around you would see a bunch older people who were professionally dressed for work that day, who were covered also in this kind of whitish grey stuff. I think it just made people look really ghostly, you know.

Amy Gaines:

On October 9th, about a month after the attacks, Michele and her classmates were sent back to school. Cleanup at ground zero was still very much in progress. She said her parents had been assured that the air was safe, and the building was cleared of all dust. There was no cause for concern. But something still wasn’t sitting right with Michele.

Michele Lent Hirsch:

When you’re going to your school and it smells like bad chemicals. That sort of instinctively is alarming, right? Even though at the time we were told it was safe, I think some part of me thought ‘well this whole area smells really, really bad.’ Like, bad chemical you’re not supposed to breathe in kind of bad.

I wasn’t diagnosed with thyroid cancer until the end of 2010. So it was 9 years later.

Amy Gaines:

Michele didn’t think about the connection to 9/11 immediately, but eventually asked her doctor.

Michele Lent Hirsch:

I do remember mentioning it to a few doctors, that I had gone to school near the World Trade Center site. And I remember saying, “do you think it’s possible that this is connected to September 11th?” Because to me it felt very much like it could be. And he kind of gave a wishy washy answer.

I got in touch with an old friend from high school. And she said, “you know you’re not the only one from our high school who’s had cancer, right?” I actually had not known that.

Amy Gaines:

This friend was the only reason Michele says she knew that she was eligible for the World Trade Center Health and Compensation Programs.

So she applied.

Michele Lent Hirsch:

Suddenly I got this thing in the mail saying like “Your cancer and a few other more minor conditions have been certified.”

Amy Gaines:

Michele now can get health care benefits to pay for her medications. Today, thankfully, she says her cancer is in remission. But she still has to take thyroid medication every day. After more than three years of paperwork, she was awarded a quarter million dollars in compensation.

I talked with Michele about Zadroga’s case. I asked her if she ever doubted that her own diagnosis was related to 9/11.

Michele Lent Hirsch:

I’m someone who’s written a lot about science, as a journalist. And I know that causality is extremely hard for scientists to pin down. And so, I think there’s no way to 100 percent prove a lot of things in the world. Forget even about this. As someone who has cancer and wishes she hadn’t had cancer, yes. Sometimes it’s easier to deal with something horrible that’s happened to you if you know that there’s a reason it happened.

Amy Gaines:

I thought my dad probably felt similarly, but I was curious, and wanted to talk to him about what I’d learned. So one afternoon, while he was getting chemotherapy treatment, hooked up to a bag of fluids, I asked him about it:

Amy Gaines:

Have you had any doubts that this cancer could be caused by something that we're not even thinking about?

Scott Gaines:

There's always doubts. You know, is it possible that it's just from something totally unrelated to 9/11? Yeah, it's possible. Anything's possible. But when you look at something like this and you try and figure out what the cause of something could be, 9/11 was number one on the list, because quite frankly nothing else fit.

Amy Gaines:

In his mind, it was pretty settled.

Scott Gaines:

Basically what I feel like is, okay I have the cancer and it's certified as being 9/11. As far as what specifically caused it, whether it was asbestos or something else, it's kind of a moot point right now. It doesn't matter to me what specifically caused it, it's here. And that's where I direct my energy, is fighting the results, if you want to call it that. I'm in this for the long haul. I'd really like to hit 90 years old, so.

Amy Gaines:

My dad believed his cancer was from 9/11 and had made peace with that. I wanted that too. I wondered why I was getting all caught up in this. Why did it matter so much to me where it’s from? What was I even doing?

Scott Gaines:

It's very difficult for the person doing the watching, because you want to do something. You want to help. You want to make it better, and you can't. And it's easier for me to be sitting in the chair than it is for you to be sitting over there looking at me, because you want to do something for me. You want to make it better. You want to make it go away, and you can't, and that's why I have this stupid machine hooked up to me with the tubes and all that running into me, because I have to fight this, and you want to be able to help me fight it, but there's only so much you can do.

Amy Gaines:

For months I’d obsessed over his cancer – looking for answers and hoping his health would improve. But all the doctors I spoke with told me, “there’s nothing we can do right now to prove with 100% certainty that someone’s cancer is from 9/11.” It’s possible that time will tell us more. That we will look back years from now and see more patterns. Get closer to the truth.

One thing we do know: the projected death toll from 9/11 illnesses is larger than the number of people who died that day.

Decisions have had to be made. Congress, for instance, has had to decide on how much we will provide for these victims, and for how long. The deadline to apply for the compensation program is 2020. Doctors I spoke with say more cases of cancer will show up after that deadline.

It’s hard to decide on a cut off or know when the money will run out. The truth is no one had expected to be in this position so many years ago. I know the feeling.

It had been over a year since my dad’s diagnosis. Since then, the cancer in his tonsils had spread to his lungs and his bones.

I was visiting home a lot at this point. Driving back and forth between Boston and our house in Long Island to see my dad and help my mom. One morning, I drove to the beach. I brought my recorder. Parked. And just talked into it.

Amy Gaines:

Okay so it’s Tuesday morning. We were at the doctors for 6 hours yesterday. Because there was an emergency at the hospital and so there was some delays. So this is like every single Monday for my dad. He goes for treatment. At a certain point, the doctor was inspecting him and giving him a check-up and he had to take off his shirt. And he did mention he's been trying to prevent people from seeing him with his shirt off. Which was strange for me, because as a kid, we would go to the community pool, where he was somewhat of a legend. Because he was always in the pool. And of course, you have your shirt off when you're in the pool. And he would literally launch children across the Bethpage Community Pool. So he was a big guy, a hairy guy. We called him Fuzzy. And, um, he doesn't look like that anymore. When he took his shirt off, he looked small. You could see his shoulders, you could see bones. You could see he’s lost a lot of the muscle definition that he had. He’s still pretty hairy. But, yeah it was just a hard day. This trip has felt really different. Because it's real. It's not really a matter of if at this point. It's just a matter of when.

Amy Gaines:

Once I could look at my dad and see how sick he was, I became less interested in where the cancer came from. Now that it was clear he was only getting worse, my questions didn’t feel like they mattered anymore.

In 2011, a memorial at Ground Zero was completed. For years, we never went. But now my dad said he wanted to take me, that we should go together.

I was dreading it. I worried visiting the memorial would just be upsetting for both of us. He was already so weak physically. I didn’t want to add to that with an exhausting day, reliving old trauma.

Recording over museum speakers:

September 11, 2001… I’ll never forget…

Amy Gaines:

The memorial is a strange place. It’s beautiful… in a dark way. There are television screens playing news reports. Photos of the people who died that day. There’s even a section that talks about the health impacts, still being experienced by first responders today. A memorial for the living, to honor those who are sick.

The museum holds over 11,000 artifacts. Hammers and gloves used at the work site. Old ID badges. A slipper that someone on one of the planes may have worn.

I kept wondering if anything would trigger something in my dad. What I would do if he panicked, like he said he had in that museum years ago.

At one point, in order to get from one floor to the next, you climb next to what’s left of a staircase that people used to escape the towers. They call it the Survivor’s Stairs.

Amy Gaines:

You okay?

Scott Gaines:

Yeah, I’m okay.

Amy Gaines:

It leads you to a big dark room, and inside, there’s an actual firetruck. It looks like it’s been through a war.

Scott Gaines:

Oh yeah, I remember seeing these firetrucks like this. There were so many of them, and they had to get them out of the way. So, what they did was they took all the firetrucks and they basically, they were stacked on top of each other. It looked like a kids play toy chest that he just got tired of playing with his toys that he just threw them in the corner. It looked like the world came down on top of it. That’s exactly what happened.

Amy Gaines:

After spending a couple hours in the museum, we went outside. There are now two giant reflection pools sitting where the towers once stood. The water cascades down to a hole in the center of them. All around are the names of those who died on that day. Some my dad knew.

Amy Gaines:

How does it feel being back in this place?

Scott Gaines:

It’s very emotional. I’m not having flashbacks which is something I’d had in the past. I’m not having flashbacks. Everything that happened to me today was a memory. Which is good because that means I’m living in the present, and I’m remembering the past. You know, it’s like okay, I can see it, I can deal with it. And it’s okay.

Amy Gaines:

I realized that at the same time I had been going back to look closer at everything that had happened after 9/11, my dad was letting it go. A name started coming up more often in our conversations. Dr. Hartman. My dad was seeing a therapist.

Amy Gaines:

Were you ever diagnosed with PTSD?

Scott Gaines:

Well actually, my therapist Dr. Hartman informed me that I have PTSD.

Amy Gaines:

So that was this year?

Scott Gaines:

Yeah. Yes. The way I’m dealing with it now, is basically, the psychologist calls it ‘living in the moment,’ I refer to it as ‘living in the present.’ The past happened. 9/11 happened. But it’s in the past, and I don’t go back and dwell on it. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do. And it seems to be working out.

Amy Gaines:

Sorry I’m not helping that much with that.

Scott Gaines:

No, it’s okay. Because now, whereas before I wouldn’t be able to talk about this without becoming a basket case for a week, now I can talk about this stuff and it’s like, okay, it’s upsetting to talk about it right now. But then I get over it immediately because again, it’s in the past and I can discuss it now.

Amy Gaines:

Well, I really appreciate how open you’ve been with me. Because I know it’s not always easy to talk about, and it’s not always easy when I cry.

Scott Gaines:

Yeah, well, I don’t like to make you cry. And there’ve been times when it’s gotten emotional for me and I feel like I have crying coming on. But it’s been explained to me that that’s a very normal reaction to being diagnosed with a life-threatening disease like cancer. And also because of everything that I’ve been through. Apparently, I’ve been through a lot. And I never really thought of it that way, but yeah. I’ve been around the block a few times.

Voice over speaker in museum:

Everyone has a 9/11 story. We invite you to share yours.

Amy Gaines:

Before we left the memorial, we stopped by a booth where people record memories from 9/11. Eventually, my dad went in to record his. In the background, you can hear other people telling their stories.

Scott Gaines:

My name is Scott Gaines. On 9/11, I started at home. I was a member of the New York City police department. And along with the rest of the NYPD I responded here to the World Trade Center site. Excuse me. Uh, to do what I could.

As far as how it affected me personally, I’m now…I’m now in a cancer fight. Which I may or may not win. But it won’t be from lack of trying. And as you can see, what used to be a full head of hair, is no longer due to chemo. But I just won’t give up. And this is all for the people who came before me and lost their lives on 9/11. And I dedicate this to them. Goodness. Okay.

Amy Gaines:

One day in September, I got a call from my mom. She told me to come home.

We buried him in a flowery cemetery on the north shore of Long Island. I wore black for two weeks, hosting family and friends in the house where we’d cared for my dad in his final days. I can’t lie to you and say the end was peaceful, or easy. He fought like hell, and I don’t think he ever was able to accept that it was over. After the last bagel platter arrived and every folding chair was put away, the weight of his death still hadn’t fallen fully on my heart.

I came back to work, craving the normalcy of my life in Boston. I understood the feeling of wanting everything to go back to normal.

When I started this story, I was looking for a simple narrative to explain the cancer my dad was carrying. But nothing like this is ever simple. And the complicated parts tend to feel more true anyway.

I’ll never know for sure if the cancer that took my dad was from that awful day. I now think that it probably was – even if I didn’t want it to be. I had always been so grateful that he wasn’t hurt that day. That it was something that we could leave behind.

But even though it was nearly 20 years ago, 9/11 never went away.

Scott Gaines:

This is something that’s part of your life, that’s part of your psyche and its part of your being and it’s something that’s going to crop up on you. Sometimes in the most unexpected of places.

Amy Gaines:

He was right of course. It will always be there. And so will he.

54m
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Policing the Police 2020
FRONTLINE returns to a troubled police department after four years to examine whether reform can work.
September 15, 2020