Special Agent Scott McDonough was helping scientists monitor a massive landfill to ensure heavy debris would not cause a catastrophic collapse. That meant taking photos of it from the sky in an FBI helicopter.
For just over three weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, McDonough, then an FBI pilot, flew a helicopter over the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, New York, as well as over the World Trade Center rubble in Manhattan. He kept the helicopter door open to take those photos, choking down contaminated air that made his throat burn.
Crews sent pieces of the buildings and other heavy debris on barges down the Hudson River to Fresh Kills, a landfill about the size of 1,500 football fields. There, other FBI personnel processed the large and complex pieces of evidence.
“One of the big concerns is we were putting heavy fill—concrete, cement, metal from these buildings, into a landfill that was made for regular garbage,” McDonough said. “We did multiple photo flights a day trying to help the scientists prevent an environmental catastrophe.”
Nearly 16 years later, in August 2017, McDonough was diagnosed with cancer. He’s one of more than 100 FBI personnel who’ve gotten sick as a result of their response to 9/11. (There may be more, but informing the FBI of an illness is voluntary.) Seventeen FBI personnel have died as a result of these illnesses.
Twenty years after the attacks, the toll they’ve taken on the FBI is evident—both in the grief over those we’ve lost and the vigilance required by all who were there that day to monitor themselves for illness.
Just a few months before his diagnosis, McDonough had heard a presentation by an FBI doctor on 9/11-related cancers. McDonough signed up for the World Trade Center Health Program, which monitors the health of those who responded to the site.
In 2017 and 2018, he endured two surgeries and six rounds of chemotherapy. He even continued working during his chemo treatments.
“It was scary, but never once did I think of the negative side. I constantly just had the positive mindset of, ‘I’ve got to fight and beat this,’” McDonough said. “From the moment of diagnosis, I thought, ‘How fast can I get this out of me and how hard can I fight?’ That’s what I did.”
As the cancer is a workplace injury, the Department of Labor and the World Trade Center Health Program covered all of McDonough’s medical expenses. He encourages all of his fellow first responders to register for these programs and keep careful tabs on their health.
“Know your body. Listen to it,” he said. “If something’s not right, see a doctor right away.”
Today, McDonough is four years cancer-free, though he is screened regularly.
He’s channeled his experience as both a cancer survivor and 9/11 responder into the work he does today for the FBI’s Miami Field Office.
McDonough is now a paramedic and manages his office’s operational medicine program, providing medical care to FBI employees in the field, especially as they do dangerous work like SWAT operations or searches. He also manages the office’s Hazardous Evidence Response Team, working to keep employees safe when they have to work with dangerous materials.
“When I had the opportunity to go to paramedic school, I jumped all over it because with everything I’ve been through medically, if I can help other people, I want to do that,” he said.
The FBI 9/11 Toll By the Numbers
- Approximately 4,000 FBI employees responded to 9/11 sites.
- About 1,000 current and former employees are registered for the World Trade Center Health Program or are in the process of registering.
- At least 100 FBI employees have become sick as a result of illnesses incurred through work at or near 9/11 crash sites.
- 17 employees have died from these illnesses.
- 70% of 9/11 responders have now retired from the FBI. The FBI continues to contact them to encourage them to register for the World Trade Center Health Program.