Life after terror: the children of 9/11

Twenty years after the World Trade Center attacks, four young people, then unborn, who lost their fathers, reveal how the events shaped their lives

Ronald Milam Jr, 19, Texas

Like for most young Americans growing up, 9/11 was a fairly constant presence, with online videos and TV documentaries, memorials and references to it on the news. I never wanted to ask Mum too much, instead putting the pieces together as I got older. I think I always knew my dad had died that day, but I’ve never felt a hugely emotional reaction. I know the basics of what happened, but there’s nothing I can do about it now.

Growing up, life at home was pretty calm. Both Mum and Dad were in the military, so I was born on Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. When I was aged three she left, and we moved to San Antonio, Texas. After that we travelled a lot – for a long time just me, my mum and my sister. Mum remarried for a while, and my younger brother came along 10 years ago.

I know that both my parents were working in the Pentagon in September 2001, on opposite sides of the building. I know that my mum survived that day, but my dad did not. Mum and I have never really sat down to discuss the details. Making her relive that day? No thanks. I don’t feel the need for closure – I wasn’t there. When things like this happen, you lose a loved one, you’ve got to carry on.

Ronald Milam Jr’s father, Ronald, with his wife Jacqueline and daughter, Myejoi.
Ronald Milam Jr’s father, Ronald, with his wife Jacqueline and daughter, Myejoi. Photograph: Arrow Pictures

Mum has always been so careful to make sure our home and lives are full of fun, love and joy. So I prefer not to dwell on the past, but to look to the future. Why focus on things that happened before I was even around? I’ve got so much time to look forward to, I hope, I don’t want to bring myself down. Our family doesn’t do too much sentimentality; we’re not emotional people.

That said, I share my dad’s name: he was Ronald Senior, and I’m Ronald Junior. It means a lot to me that we have the same name. It means he is a constant presence, always there.

It has been 20 years since 9/11, and I know what I want for myself two decades in the future. I’m determined to make sure I reach my full potential. I study biology now, and want to be a PA, a physician’s assistant. What matters to me most, though, is being stable and happy. And I’d like to have a family – being a father would be pretty dope as well.

Claudia Szurkowski, 19, Florida

‘Some people say it never happened. But I’m living proof’: Claudia Szurkowski.
‘Some people say it never happened. But I’m living proof’: Claudia Szurkowski. Photograph: Arrow Pictures

Last year I enrolled in my college major studying criminal justice. At one point I wanted to study counter-terrorism, but to make the difference I want to the world I’ve decided I need to get to law school, whether I end up writing, interpreting or fighting to uphold it. It’s a natural fit for me. Mum will tell you how I’ve never liked to shut my mouth since I learned how to open it. But that’s not the only reason why I’m drawn to the legal world.

In August 2001, a month before 9/11, my mum found out she was pregnant with me while she and my dad were on vacation in Poland. My dad was a contractor – wallpaper and mechanics – and after they returned he was assigned his jobs for the first week back. On 9/11 itself, he was supposed to be doing a job in New Jersey, but the night before he got a call saying he was going to be sent to the 104th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center the following morning instead. It was a short job: he was only due to be there for two hours, from 7am to 9am. He’d never stepped foot inside the building before.

When 9am came around, my mum tried to call him when she saw the news on the television. She hoped with all she had that he had already made his way out. Mum couldn’t get through, rightly fearing the worst had happened. To this day we think he was probably done with work, and on his way out of the building when it was hit. Dad never made it out.

‘Dad had never been in the building before’: Claudia’s parents.
‘Dad had never been in the building before’: Claudia’s parents. Photograph: Arrow Pictures

Each time I think about it, I feel super angry. He should have made it out, his job was over. Why didn’t he? My mum always says everything happens for a reason. I just don’t understand what this one is.

For much of my life, I’ve been reading about the events which led up to that day: it seems to me there was so much the US could have done to avoid the entire situation. We knew about al-Qaida, these names were known. Knowing this has always made me want to get my foot in the door of the justice system, to make sure events like this can’t happen again.

Growing up there was me, my mum and two sisters. I was born in Brooklyn, then we lived in Staten Island. When I was eight we moved to Florida, where we’ve been ever since. The four of us are close: a unit of best friends. In school, I found it difficult to tell people my story. I knew it would see me labelled, that I’d be looked at in a different way. I wouldn’t tell people I met, unless I really trusted them: I didn’t want their pity. It just felt so fake.

In time, I’ve grown out of that a little. It’s more important to remember that thousands of people are in the same situation that I am. Twenty years may have passed, but we don’t educate people about what happened that day anywhere near enough. Our lives are constantly shaped by what happened, I know I’ll never stop grieving. Meanwhile there are people in the United States spreading conspiracy theories, or pretending 9/11 never happened at all. This is a part of American history which destroyed the lives of so many: I’m living proof.

I remember going to the memorial at Ground Zero before it was even erected. On 11 September we’d go and listen to the names. We’d walk along this long path towards two pools of water into which we’d throw roses. It shocks my mum that I have these memories. I was so young. I might not have understood what was happening, but even then I knew the importance of that day. I don’t remember if Mum ever sat me down and told me what exactly happened to Dad. I always knew it was going to be just us girls.

Still, he’s a real presence in my life. I’ve got pictures of him in my room which I speak to every night at bedtime. We talk about him as a family all the time. He already knows about my dream – to take up a seat in the US Supreme Court.

Nicholas Bellini Gorki, 19, New York

‘If Mum hadn’t had morning sickness, she’d have been killed’:Nicholas Bellini Gorki.
‘If Mum hadn’t had morning sickness, she’d have been killed’:Nicholas Bellini Gorki. Photograph: Arrow Pictures

I don’t have much family in the United States. Mum immigrated here nearly 30 years ago from Brazil. Most of her relatives remain in South America. My dad, meanwhile, came to America from Germany for work in the 1990s. Through my paternal grandparents, I feel a strong connection to my father and his European heritage. It’s a way, I think, of me being close to him.

Mum might remember it differently, but I can recall, aged around eight or nine, the first time 9/11 came up in conversation at home with crystal clarity. On TV, kids always called their dads “father” – which was a word we just never used at home. When I asked mum why, she sat me down and explained this to me carefully: the man who I knew as dad – her partner at the time – didn’t actually share my DNA.

I was only a child, but that day she told me the story. My parents had met at a New York party and felt an instant connection. As she puts it, theirs was love at first sight. They both worked in finance: Mum at Morgan Stanley, Dad at Deutsche Bank. They started to date, and had made plans to move in together after finding out she was pregnant with me.

‘People always say “9/11, never forget”, but Mum would always tell me about the compassion she was shown in the aftermath’: Nick’s parents.
‘People always say “9/11, never forget”, but Mum would always tell me about the compassion she was shown in the aftermath’: Nick’s parents. Photograph: Arrow Pictures

The morning of 11 September 2001 was one of the first after they’d secured an apartment together. Dad worked in Midtown, but that day he’d volunteered to take an early morning meeting at the World Trade Center. Mum always worked inside the Twin Towers, but that morning, struck with morning sickness, she was running late. It was a beautiful day, so she decided to take a minute for a breath outside the office. That’s when she heard a noise above her, and looked up to see a big ball of fire. If I hadn’t been making her nauseous, she too would have been 70 floors up. Dad died that day, aged just 27.

As she recounted that day, we watched videos on YouTube. Before then, I knew nothing of 9/11. Suddenly I was aware of this terrible piece of US history, and how it had shaped our family. I’m not sure I could quite comprehend it all.

Just a couple of years after learning what had happened, in May 2011, I was on the bus home from elementary school. They were talking about 9/11 on the radio. It was weird, and given I was playing with my friends, it felt like a real mood killer: if I’m trying to have a good time, it’s just not a topic I want to think about, thanks. Back home, I went upstairs to find Mum frantic in front of the television. I asked what had happened, she told me Osama had been killed. I thought she was telling me Barack Obama had been assassinated. Once the confusion was cleared up, I learned for the first time who Osama bin Laden was.

Both Mum and my grandparents say I remind them of my dad: the face shape, long hair, and cavity-free teeth I inherited from him. They say we share an enthusiasm for life, too. His passion was banking; mine are cheerleading and computer science. In the same way he chased his dreams – becoming a vice president in his 20s – I want to follow mine. I like to think I’m continuing the life he led, despite the fact I never met him.

I think a lot about what happened that day. It’s like Mum and I were spared – whether I thank God, the universe or just our luck – by the grace of something we survived. The fact I’m even alive today? I can’t tell you how often I just feel grateful.

People always say “9/11, never forget”, but Mum would always tell me about the compassion she was shown in the aftermath. In the days following the attack, she was searching hospitals for my father. She met people from all over the country, who helped her in her efforts to track him down. So yes of course, we should never forget the tragedy of what happened, but I hope we also never forget 9/12, 9/13 and the days that followed: the care and love that our families like ours were shown.

Dina Retik, 19, Vermont

‘When so much of the US was full of hatred my mum was full of love’: Dina Retik.
‘When so much of the US was full of hatred my mum was full of love’: Dina Retik. Photograph: Arrow Pictures

Until recently, I’d not talked much about 9/11 to friends or family. Of course it came into my relationships, it’s a constant presence, but I’d never taken the time to deep dive into it. It all somehow felt both deeply private and extremely public at the same time: I wasn’t sure how best to navigate it. I wasn’t born when it happened, I was in my mum’s womb, so my relationship to it and how it makes me feel is constantly evolving.

I think that’s because we were “the 9/11 family” for so long that it basically just became a label. It meant I got attention, and played a role. I didn’t really get to experience the emotional side. In the 20 years that have passed, I think my family have had time to reflect and process what happened. Now, as I get a little older, it feels, finally, that I’m going through that, too.

My dad was on board flight AA11, the first plane which crashed into the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001. I don’t know much about that day from his perspective, but when my mum gave a TED talk, I heard about how she experienced it. Some details stick out, things she said in her talk which have stuck with me.

Babe in arms: father David with Dina’s sister.
Babe in arms: father David with Dina’s sister. Photograph: Arrow Pictures

Mum was in the grocery store parking lot when she heard on the radio that a plane had made impact with the World Trade Center. She had just pulled up, the car was still running. Instead of going shopping she decided to drive home again to check my dad’s flight number. It’s a human moment that made the story real. I could put myself in her shoes.

I also learned in her talk that my dad was sitting next to one of the terrorists on the aeroplane. Again, it’s a deal that suddenly made everything feel real.

There was a message to her talk, too, a mantra which has really shaped me: our experiences and what we do with them shape who we are.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Mum received so much love and support from friends, family, neighbours and the entire country. She took a step back, and looked across the world: over in Afghanistan, she saw how many widows just like her were being treated so badly and felt sickened. Women who had lost their husbands were treated like they were worthless. At first, Mum wanted to try and help just one woman in a situation like hers; she started small.

I’m so proud that from her pain, Mum decided to show kindness to others. When so much of the United States was filled with hatred – war, bigotry and violence – she was full of love. Today she runs a non-profit called Beyond the Eleventh, supporting Afghan widows trying to build lives after their husbands have passed. We do fundraisers and events, and a charity bike ride from Ground Zero to our home in Boston. I did the ride in my senior year of high school, and I’m doing it again this year – alongside my entire family – to mark 20 years having passed since we lost Dad.

I’m determined to find out more about him from anyone who knew him. I’m gathering up his memories and stories, which I can keep and pass down in the future, so I know he’ll always live on.

Children of 9/11: Our Story is on Channel 4 on 16 August at 9pm

  • This article was amended on 16 August 2021 to correct the name of St Andrews Air Force Base to Andrews Air Force Base, also known as Joint Base Andrews.

Contributor

Michael Segalov

The GuardianTramp

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