Twenty years ago this week, on Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists launched coordinated attacks on the U.S. using airplanes as their weapons.
Nearly 3,000 people were killed.
Many of those who died left behind children who were so young they never got to know their parents. A new generation has grown up over the past two decades with few if any memories of those they lost; perhaps just a hazy glimpse that continues to fade over the years, or a faint echo of a voice.
These are some of their stories.
“How do I define myself without the most important male role model in my life?”
An Nguyen smiles as he flips through some old family photos: there he is, a 1-year-old, cuddling on his father’s lap. A 3-year-old, riding high on his dad’s shoulders at their home in Fairfax, Va.
But then there he is, having just turned 4, wearing a traditional Vietnamese white headband for mourning, weeping over his father’s casket.
“Being so young and so vulnerable,” An says, “it was a really difficult time.”
An’s father, Khang Nguyen, was an electronics engineer who worked as a contractor for the Navy. He was killed when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon — a direct hit in the area where he worked. He was 41.
There’s a family photo of An — a small boy in khaki overalls, standing outside the Pentagon — taken just a few days after the attack. He’s clutching an orange safety fence. Where the plane struck the building, a whole section is gone. There’s just a blackened, gaping hole, open to the sky.
Khang Nguyen was born in Vietnam. He grew up amidst the trauma of war, and emigrated from Vietnam to the U.S. in 1981, where he met and married An’s mother, Tu HoNguyen. An is their only child.
An’s memories of his father are few. “He would sing, sometimes very loudly,” he recalls. “A lot of classical or traditional songs in Vietnamese.”
In a picture book he made in elementary school, titled What My Father Means to Me, An wrote, “When my father died, I forgot everything from him. I was very sad when he died, but I still love him so much.”
To illustrate that page, An sketched a jet plane about to crash into the Pentagon. He drew himself off to one side, with tears falling down his face.
As he’s grown, with so few memories of the father he lost, An has had to reckon with huge life questions.
“In some regards I’m on my own,” he says, “trying to understand how this world operates and possibly more importantly, how do I know myself? How do I define myself without the most important male role model in my life?”
An, who will turn 24 on Sept. 9, is a software engineer, soon to get his master’s degree from George Mason University. It’s a degree his dad was on track to get himself when his life was cut short.
In this 20th anniversary year, An sees his upcoming educational achievement as a gift for his father. “It embodies my father’s legacy,” he says. “I know he would be very proud of where I’ve gone and what I’ve persevered for, under his name.”
On 9/11, An and his mother plan to attend the annual memorial service at the Pentagon. At home, on the family altar for Khang, they will set out his favorite foods: the Vietnamese noodle soup pho, some tropical fruits, and chè, a sweet pudding. They will light incense, and pray.
Her mom told her bad men on his plane killed her dad, and it made her afraid of all men
In a field just outside Shanksville, Pa., the Flight 93 National Memorial features a towering musical instrument: 40 wind chimes, representing the 40 passengers and crew who died when United Flight 93 crashed there after being overtaken by hijackers.
LeRoy Homer was the co-pilot on that flight. He was 36 when he died.
He had fallen in love with planes as a little boy growing up on Long Island, New York. He would watch aircraft take off and land for hours.
As a teen, he worked at night cleaning medical buildings to save up money for flying lessons. He got his private pilot’s license when he was 16.
Homer joined United Airlines after a military career as an Air Force pilot, flying C-141 cargo planes during the Gulf War, and later, flying humanitarian missions in Somalia.
Homer’s only child, his daughter Laurel Homer, was 10 months old when her father was killed in the crash.
“I don’t know that much,” she says. “It’s something that I just don’t ask about a lot.”
For Laurel, walling off the facts of her dad’s death has been a protective measure. “It’s something that I grew up kind of ashamed of,” she says. “I wasn’t normal like all the other people that went to my school. It’s something that makes me very vulnerable and it makes me different. And I didn’t like people to know.”
From a very early age, Laurel was traumatized by the little she did know about how her father died.
“The way my mom explained it to me was that there were bad men on his plane and that he was gone because of those bad men,” she says. “So then it basically made me terrified of all men, including family members, strangers, everybody.”
Child therapy helped with that. Later, so did going to a summer camp for children who lost loved ones on 9/11, Camp Better Days.
There, Laurel says, she didn’t feel different or vulnerable. Everyone understood what she was going through; they all shared that same empty space at the heart of their family.
Still, she wondered about the kids she met there who did have time to get to know and love their parents.
“It’s definitely a hard place to be when you saw a future that you never got to have,” she says. “We don’t have memories to get to think about. We just have to think about what we didn’t have.”
Laurel, 20, is starting her senior year at Rutgers University, majoring in companion animal science. She usually avoids memorial services on 9/11; she tends to grieve alone. And she tries to ignore the constant reminders — everywhere, in the news, on social media — of what that day means for her and her family.
To honor LeRoy Homer’s legacy, Laurel’s mother, Melodie Homer, established the LeRoy W. Homer Jr. Foundation, which provides scholarships to young people interested in careers in aviation. “I’m happy that my mom was able to make something good of a bad situation,” Laurel says. “She’s definitely shown that good things can come from those situations.”
“There’s never going to be a version of me that doesn’t hate the people that did that”
When A.J. Niedermeyer tries to remember his father, who died when A.J. was 2 ½, it’s “more a sense than a memory,” he says. “A warm fuzzy feeling, for sure.”
A.J. is named for his father, Alfonse Niedermeyer, who was known as “Big Al” – a strapping guy, often the loudest voice in the room.
A Port Authority police officer who lived in Manasquan, N.J., he rushed to the World Trade Center to help with rescues. He was 40 when he died in the south tower.
Soon after his memorial service, his wife, Nancy, discovered she was pregnant with their second child.
She chose the name Angelica, meaning “messenger of God.” Middle name: Joy.
“I’ve told you this before, Angelica,” A.J. reminds his sister, “you were one of the best things that could have possibly happened right then, and then every year after that. It was huge for mom and huge for me, too.”
“Thanks,” Angelica whispers.
For Angelica, born eight months after her father died, all she knows of her father comes from photos, videos, or stories passed along.
“I do remember when A.J. would miss our dad,” she says, “and I would try so hard to understand. You know, he would say, like, ‘Oh, I miss daddy,’ and I’d be, like, ‘Well, I miss him, too!’ even though I didn’t even understand what that meant. I just wanted to be included.”
Responding to that, A.J. tells his sister, “I think for a long time, Angelica — I mean, I don’t want to speak for you, but I think it meant a lot to you, the fact that I had had those two and a half years. But you know, I was so young and there’s so much that I don’t remember.”
Angelica says she had some resentment toward her brother because he had even those couple of years with their dad. “I was definitely jealous,” Angelica admits. “My brain was like, ‘Oh, at least my dad knew that he existed, and he had some time with him.’ ”
Both Angelica and A.J. say the hero narrative wrapped around the story of the 9/11 first responders can overwhelm their intimate, personal loss.
As A.J. puts it, it can be hard to cut through their dad’s “larger-than-lifeness.”
And, he says, it’s hard for him to stomach the ways 9/11 has become politicized: used as fodder for both patriotism and retribution.
When he was 14, A.J. flew with his mom to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to observe a pre-trial hearing for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other defendants who are charged with orchestrating the 9/11 attacks.
“There’s never going to be a version of me that doesn’t hate the people that did that,” he says. “I do want justice, whatever that is, for the people who orchestrated it. And I do want justice for the systems that supported them financially and made it possible, gave them shelter. But I hate how our lives and our narratives become part of a narrative that’s weaponized for interests that have nothing to do with us.”
Later this month, A.J., who is 22, will head to graduate school at the University of Chicago. Angelica, 19, is a sophomore at Manhattan College.
On 9/11, their family tradition is to visit the memorial at Ground Zero. There, they will touch their father’s name, inscribed with so many others on the bronze parapet where the south tower once stood.
It was years before the twins were told how their mom died, and their world shattered
A home video from 1997 shows Lisa Trerotola, with curly dark hair and a heart-shaped face, hugely and happily pregnant with the twins she and her husband, Michael, had a hard time conceiving.
“Seventeen weeks!” she says proudly. “Starting on my fifth month!”
The twins, Amanda and Michael, would be 3½ when their mom, Lisa, was killed in the north tower of the World Trade Center. She was 36; an administrative assistant for the Port Authority.
The twins were so young when she died that they don’t have much to hold on to.
“There’s not a lot that I know about my mom,” Michael says. “From what I understand, she was extremely hard-working and probably one of the kindest people you would meet.”
As for what Amanda remembers, “I probably only have, like, two very cloudy memories of her,” she says. “I can just see images, but it’s very slim to none.”
After 9/11, Michael says, “I sort of recall that someone asked if she was coming home, and I remember my dad replying that she isn’t coming back.”
But beyond that, the twins weren’t told what happened to their mother. They had a vague idea that she had died in a fire. They don’t remember a funeral.
Their dad soon remarried, and Lizz, whom they call their “new mom,” became the mother they knew.
It wasn’t until they were 11 years old that their father and Lizz sat them down and told them the truth: that in fact, their mom was killed in the attacks of 9/11.
“And I just remember my brother tucking his head in the pillow and just crying his eyes out,” Amanda says. “He was gasping, and then of course I started gasping.”
Michael adds, “It was just utter shock.”
The twins were finally told the reality when their parents thought they were old enough to understand it: Terrorists. Hijacking. Skyscrapers collapsing.
Everything the children thought they knew was shattered.
“Honestly,” Amanda says, “it just felt like the world got a lot smaller at that moment, and it wasn’t as safe anymore.”
“I agree,” Michael says. “That moment just still sticks out to me because it’s so world-crushing. And what you thought you knew isn’t what is.”
Their parents’ fears, exacerbated by 9/11, meant that the twins weren’t allowed to go on trains, planes, or boats, and they couldn’t go into Manhattan, even though they lived just about an hour away in New Jersey.
As their dad explains it now, he became hyper-protective, trying to guard the family against further loss.
Amanda and Michael are now 23 and college seniors, at Ohio State and The College of New Jersey, respectively. Neither of them has ever gone to see the Sept. 11 memorial at Ground Zero.
Instead, they try to keep the memory of their mother, Lisa, close in small ways.
Amanda remembers that when she went to take her driving test to get her license, she brought along a photo of her mom, holding the toddler twins.
“Afterwards, I did find out I passed,” Amanda says. “And I remember taking the picture out of my center console and just saying, ‘Mom, I did it, and you would be so happy! I really wish you were here to, like, see me!’ I just was overjoyed. And at one point I kissed the picture and I was like, ‘See, I did it, mom!’ ”
After 20 years, the annual commemoration of those killed on 9/11 still feels overwhelming to them. “That feeling never goes away,” Amanda says. “The fact that our family in essence is part of a national tragedy.”
“It’s just very troubling to navigate,” Michael says. “It’s like a giant sea of loss and grief.”
“I do feel the absence of my father. But it’s weird because I don’t know what I’m missing”
Manuel DaMota Jr. never met his father, but the elder DaMota’s craftsmanship can still be found throughout the family’s Long Island home. Tables, chairs and dressers around the house all bear the mark of Manuel Sr.’s skilled woodworker hands. The basement, which he built himself, has a workroom where some of his tools still lay just as he left them more than two decades ago.
Manuel Sr. was 43 when he was killed in the North Tower while working on a project for the Windows on the World restaurant. Manuel Jr., who goes by Manny, was born six months later.
Manny grew up collecting stories about his father from family members and friends. He says he was driven to find out more about his dad to try to feel the same closeness others who were in his father’s life can recall from their own memories — memories Manny has to borrow.
“I just realized that was someone I never met but at the same time was so dear and so important to my life and who I am as a person,” Manny says. “I do feel the absence of my father. But it’s weird because I don’t know what I’m missing, but I know I’m missing it.”
Through stories and photographs, Manny has pieced together an understanding of his father as a Beatles lover, a gifted artisan and a “pillar” in the lives of those around him — always there for Manny’s mother and elder brother, who was 10 when their father was killed.
Like Laurel Homer, Manny attended a summer camp for children who lost parents in the attacks. At America’s Camp, set in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, he looked up to the counselors, many of whom also lost a parent on 9/11.
He says that one of the most memorable parts of camp was conversations with counselors about their shared grief. Seeing counselors openly talk about their emotions became proof “to show ourselves that we can keep going without our loved ones there.”
After attending camp for a few years, Manny moved to Paraguay in 2010 to be closer to his mother’s family. He can recall at least five instances over a decade attending the American School of Asuncion when he became a steady shoulder to lean on for classmates who lost one of their own family members, just as the camp counselors had been for him.
The role came naturally to Manny, who aspires to a career where he can help people with their personal and emotional lives. He is now a sophomore studying psychology at Pace University in downtown Manhattan, a 10-minute walk from Ground Zero.
During his freshman year, Manny visited the reflecting pools at least every other week, and sometimes more than once in the same week, because being there makes him feel close to his dad.
Usually he visits alone, but on the anniversary this year he will make the trip with his mother, elder brother and younger sister, who was born five years after 9/11. The family plans on saying Manuel Sr.’s name aloud when it’s read during the ceremony, and afterward, they plan on having dinner at one of Manuel Sr.’s favorite restaurants before visiting his grave.
“I definitely have that love towards him even though I never met him, never felt him,” Manny says. “He was important to my family, therefore he’s important to me.”