9/11 ten years on: The children left behind

They lost a parent in the most traumatising of circumstances. Joanna Moorhead hears some of their stories, of grief, pride and hope

Sunday 04 September 2011 00:00
Next weekend will mark 10 years since the terrorist attacks on America
Next weekend will mark 10 years since the terrorist attacks on America

More than 3,000 children under the age of 18 lost a parent on 11 September 2001. The average age of these "9/11 kids" was nine – but some were just babies, and some weren't even born.

Some were the children of firefighters or office workers who died when the World Trade Center was attacked by two planes hijacked by al-Qa'ida terrorists; others had parents who were working in the Pentagon, which was hit by a third hijacked aircraft; others were the children of passengers on board the planes involved in those attacks or on a fourth hijacked plane, which crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.

The grief of losing a father or a mother in the world's worst terrorist atrocity was complicated. Next weekend will mark 10 years since the trauma. For the children who mourn, it's a chance to reflect on what's happened in that decade, as well as to remember anew the parents who didn't live to see them grow up. Many of their stories are featured in a Channel 4 documentary, Children of 9/11 – and some of those who took part in the programme have also shared their stories with us.

Madison, Halley and Anna Clare Burnett

Now 15, twins Madison and Halley Burnett were five, and their sister, Anna Clare, only three when their father, Tom, a medical research executive, became one of 44 people to die aboard United Airlines Flight 93. He called his wife, Deena, from the hijacked plane, and is credited as one of the passengers who thwarted the terrorists' plans to hit either the White House or the Capitol – instead, it crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania

Madison We were only little, but we'll never forget that morning. We were all in the sitting room, and mum got a phone call; and I remember her crying hysterically, but she wouldn't tell us what was wrong. What we didn't know was that it was my dad, phoning to say that he was on board a hijacked plane.

She turned on the TV and we could see these buildings falling down. It was all really crazy – we didn't know what was happening. I just remember the sound of my mum crying, and staring in horror at the images on the TV.

I think my mum must have phoned someone to take us to school... and then most of the rest of the day is a blank, although what I do remember – much later – is looking out of the window when it was dark, and seeing that our neighbours had formed a human chain around our home, to stop the TV cameramen and journalists getting near to us. And that was when my mum told us that Dad had died, that he wouldn't be coming back.

Losing a parent on 9/11 was a bit different from losing a parent to say, cancer, or in a car crash. To start with, everyone knew about it – so, wherever you went, people wanted to stop us and tell us how sorry they were. You'd never go out without getting this attention. It seemed a bit creepy, that everyone seemed to know everything about us.

One thing that ate away at me for a long time was that I always used to say a prayer for my dad when he was away on a trip and that night, the night before he died, I forgot. I kept that inside myself for years, but I felt really guilty about it. Somewhere inside, I thought it was all my fault. Now, though, I've talked to my mum about it; and of course she's reassured me that it couldn't possibly have been my fault. But somewhere, deep inside, part of me still thinks that, just possibly, it was.

It's very difficult to think of anything positive that comes of losing a parent like this, but I do try to think about what I've learned. I think it's so important to talk, to explore how you feel. I don't know what I'll do when I'm older, but I guess I might do something that's related to what's happened to me in losing my dad. It feels like everything in my life has been affected by 9/11, so I think it's quite likely that what I choose to do as a job might be affected by it, too.

I have lots of good memories of my dad: he was so warm, and he loved us so much. When he came home from work, we'd all hide behind the couch, then pop out and say: "Surprise!" He always pretended to be surprised. And, of course, I'm proud of him, too, and of what he did on board the flight.

One thing I think about a lot is: what would my dad want for us now? What he'd have most wanted is simply for us to be happy, I think. He would have wanted my mum to remarry, and he would have wanted our lives to turn out pretty much as they have now.

Halley I feel very proud of my dad and what he did on 9/11; I think we all do. He was very funny, and he was a born leader; he was always the person in control. He was very good at taking decisions, and people respected his decision-making and trusted him. So I can see why he did what he did on board that plane.

If he came back now I think he'd be proud of us, too, of how we all turned out. I think he'd be pleased with our accomplishments, of the things we've worked hard for in school. I'd tell him about my grades, and about my basketball – he'd have been happy with that, because he was a sporty guy. I'll always miss him.

Anna Clare Even though I was only little, I remember that morning; I remember my mum rushing upstairs to check the flight my dad was on, because they were saying the flight numbers that were affected on the television. And then the phone rang and it was my dad, and I asked if I could talk to him. Then, later that day, my mum told us all that he had died: she said a bad guy hijacked the plane. I didn't believe he was dead: for about a year afterwards I thought he was coming back. I was always asking my mum, "When is Daddy going to be home?"

Now my mum has a new husband – she got married again four years ago. It was difficult, a new guy coming into our family – and he has a 21-year-old son, so things changed a lot for us. For a while it was all a bit awkward – my sisters and I were worried that he'd take our dad's role, and we knew we wouldn't like that. To tell the truth, I didn't want a new man in our family. At first, I even tried to talk my mum out of marrying him.

But now things are fine. The wedding day was lots of fun – we had our hair done, and we got to go to church in a limo. And now I like it for my mum that she's got someone. I always used to notice how she was on her own at couples' events at school... and now she isn't, she's half a couple, and that's really good for her.

Rodney Ratchford

Rodney, 21, was 11 years old when his mother, Marsha, died at the Pentagon

I woke up with a stomach ache on 11 September 2001, and it was really bad. So I asked my mum if I could stay at home, and she could take the day off work to look after me. But she said no – I had to go to school, and she had to go to work. And so we did: but when she walked out the door that morning, it was the last time I ever saw her.

A few hours later I was in school when a teacher came into the classroom and told our teacher to switch on the television. So we turned it on and we saw the World Trade Center getting hit. And then, just a bit later, there was a huge boom and the whole school shook. I remember ducking under my desk and saying: "Mama! I want my mama." What I couldn't have known was that my mama was at the centre of what I could hear happening – because a hijacked jet had just hit the Pentagon, where she worked as an IT technician.

The first thing I saw when I got home was my dad. He was on the phone and he was crying. The television was showing pictures of the Pentagon in flames.

But we didn't give up on my mama coming home for ages. Some people still thought they might find her days and weeks later, because we knew there were survivors lying unconscious in hospital, and we prayed she was one of them. There was so much chaos, and we knew it was possible. But, gradually, it got less and less likely.

My sister Marsha, who was eight, and my baby sister, Miranda, who was just nine months, and I all went to stay with our aunt in Alabama. Eventually, we had a memorial service for my mama, and that was really hard. She was amazing, my mama – the sweetest person, but really tough, too. We always used to say that you'd never want to be against my mum in a war, because she'd always be on the winning side – every time.

After my mum died I got really angry. I wanted to hurt other people, because of what I was going through. It felt so unfair that I was waking up every day with no mama to say good morning to. Because I was so full of anger, I didn't care about anyone else. I joined a gang: I was taking drugs, selling them. I was in a bad way. If my mama had been there, who knows if it would have happened? But my mama wasn't there, and I was all messed up inside.

Things are much better now, because I've got a partner and she's got a daughter, and we're a family. My life has moved on. But what happened to my mum, that's always with me.

They never found her body, but she has a grave. It's a symbolic thing, a place where I can go to think about her and to talk to her. I hope that, if she's looking down on me, she's proud of me. I got involved in some bad things but I'm not a bad person; and I managed to turn things round, and I know she'd be pleased about that.

Caitlin Langone

Caitlin, 22, was 12 when her father, Tommy, a firefighter, died in the twin towers. His brother Peter – Caitlin's uncle – another firefighter, also died

I was on the cusp of who I was starting to be when I lost my daddy, and my daddy was such a big part of shaping who I was. I don't exactly remember the last time I saw him. It had been my brother Brian's birthday, so we had a party the weekend before, and that was maybe the last time. On the day it happened I was in school; and at lunchtime there was a girl crying hysterically, because her dad worked in the World Trade Center. I went to try to help her, and said, "It's all going to be OK, don't worry. My daddy is a firefighter, and he'll be going in there to get your daddy out." Neither of our dads got out alive.

Brian and I went home from school together and, of course, the television was on and it seemed quite fascinating really, because we knew our daddy was a New York firefighter and we knew he would be in there somewhere, helping people, just like he was always in emergency situations helping people. He'd been in lots of dangerous places before and he'd always come home. He sometimes disappeared for a day or two, because it wasn't always easy to keep in touch in the midst of a huge emergency, but we knew that and we weren't thinking things were too bad for him.

But the day wore on into the evening, and still there was no call. I could tell my mum was getting worried. We all sat down together to watch George Bush's address on the telly, and all the time we were thinking about, talking about, how our dad was in there, helping people get out.

By night-time there was still no word, so when I went to bed I did what I always did when my dad was out on a dangerous assignment, I put one of his shirts on. It made me feel close to him. I felt sure he was alive, but that was a comforting thing to do. I thought it was just because the cellphones were down, or because he was so busy, that he hadn't called.

Over the next few days Brian and I carried on going to school, and things seemed normal, so I was still sure things would be OK. It was only when it got to a week after the attack that I started getting unsure. But, in a way, I was numb to it – it was simply too big a thing to contemplate, that he might never be coming back.

Neither my daddy's nor my Uncle Peter's bodies were ever found, but in the end we had a funeral for them. We don't know exactly what happened; but I know that a man remembered talking to a tall firefighter with grey hair, who had helped him get out of one of the towers and then went back inside to help someone else. I'm sure that was my daddy: he would have carried on helping people, for as long as it took. In a way, it's the biggest consolation I have, that he at least died doing the job he loved. And I guess it's a help that he was there as a firefighter, that he was dedicated to what he did and that he was prepared to die to save others. That makes his death maybe easier to accept than it is for people whose relatives were office workers, people who never expected to be in any danger. My daddy knew his job was dangerous; but he believed in it, he loved it. There was always this chance in his life, because it was part and parcel of what he did.

I'm so incredibly proud of him: he died being the best person he could possibly have been, and that's pretty special. When you've got to go, it's not a bad way to go. And I know that he'd have wanted me to strive to be the best possible person I can be, too.

There's a long tradition in my family of public service – they didn't earn a lot, in fact, my dad had to hold down two jobs, as both a cop and a part-time firefighter, to make enough money for our family. My mum was a nurse, but she'd been laid off. So we never had much money. Of course, 9/11 changed that because we got compensation. So, suddenly, I was the girl who could afford a new car when she passed her test, and who could go to university and live away from home. What made me mad was my friends who I knew were jealous of those things. I mean, do they think I'd rather have the cash than have my daddy back?

Recently, I decided I wanted a permanent memorial to my dad and I decided on a tattoo – I thought it would be a badge of honour. It's on my leg, and I picked a design that reminds me of him. It's like the police emblem, and the words are "Anytime Baby" which was the motto of his unit. And that really sums him up: he was a guy who would turn out any time, any where, to help other people. Having the tattoo done was painful, but I kept thinking that the pain was only temporary. The pain of losing Daddy never goes away, and it never will.

On 11 September I'll be with my mum and my brother at the memorial ceremony in Battery Park, near Ground Zero. Afterwards, we'll go to look round the new 9/11 museum – the families are the first people who are getting a chance to see it. We'll spend some time just quietly at the site of the towers, thinking about my daddy, because that's his grave, really. His body was never recovered, so that's where he lies. We'll all tell stories about Daddy, and we'll remember him... and I'll think, I was just so lucky to have known him. I was just so lucky that he was my daddy.

Thea Trinidad

Thea, 20, was 10 when her father, Michael, who was a telecoms analyst in the World Trade Center, was killed in the attacks

It was a school day, but I had stayed at home because I had a doctor's appointment. I remember the phone ringing and my mum sounding panicky and saying "Michael!" down the line. I knew something was wrong, but I thought it was my uncle whose name is also Michael – my parents were divorced. But then she said no, no, it's your dad.

I had no idea what was going on, but then my mum rushed upstairs and turned on the TV, and she was looking at the pictures of the World Trade Center burning and – because she used to work there too – she was trying to give him ideas of how to get out. She was saying have you tried such-and-such a staircase, that sort of thing. But the thing is that he was on the 103rd floor, well above where the plane had struck. We didn't know it then, but his escape routes were all cut off.

After about 10 minutes, my dad went off the phone to try to find a way out, and my mum and I carried on watching the TV. And then, a while later, we saw the towers come down. I remember crying and screaming, but my mum was saying to me that my dad was the sort of person who'd always find a way out, and that he'd have made it down before the collapse. But I guess that in our hearts we knew that wasn't very likely.

The next day Mum went into Manhattan to put up posters saying my dad was missing, and we had a bit of hope that we'd find him that way. But we never did.

About a year later we got a call to say they'd found his remains. We'd hoped for that, but, of course, it was heartbreaking, too. We already knew he'd never be back, but this was the final certainty, and it was tough to bear. But at least we were able to bury him. There's a closure in burial.

The thing I've found hard to live with, through the years, is the thought that my dad's death was planned – that it was a murder, and that the murderers plotted for so long, and that they cared so little for the people whose lives they were going to take, or their families. I don't hate people because they're a certain religion or from a certain part of the world, but I hate the people who were involved – especially Osama bin Laden. His death earlier this year was certainly deserved: but, on the other hand, it didn't bring my dad or anyone else back.

My dad had always wanted to be a professional wrestler, and we shared a love of wrestling. He knew I wanted to become a professional wrestler, and fulfilling that ambition became much more important once he'd gone, because it was for him as well as for me. So now, 10 years on, that's what I do: I wrestle internationally. It's an unusual thing to do, especially for a 20-year-old woman, but I always imagine he's there in the front row. He'd be so proud to see me up there.

Children of 9/11, September 11, 9pm, Channel 4

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