None of them have any tangible memory of their father and thus they cannot even grieve them the way their mothers do.
In September 2001, the twin towers of the World Trade Center came crashing down after two of four hijacked airplanes flew into it. Almost 3,000 people died in that terrorist attack of which 2,606 were in the two towers. 19-year-old Gabi Jacobs Dick's father was just one of them. Ariel Jacobs was attending a meeting that morning in Tower One when the Al Qaeda-hijacked planes sliced into it. The only thing that was recoverable was his briefcase. Six days after his tragic demise, his widow, Jenna Jacobs McPartland, gave birth to their son Gabriel who says, "Losing my dad was life-altering, not life-changing. It altered my path from day one."
His story was similar to many whose dads too died that day leaving behind their wides who went on to have their babies who were like "the last kiss, the last gift," according to 51-year-old Dena Smagala. Her firefighter husband, Stan, was in Tower Two when it collapsed. Amidst the chaos that is our world today, these children hope to represent new life. "It's pretty cool if people see us as signs of hope. We're just being ourselves," 19-year-old Ronald Milam Jr. told PEOPLE. His father Army Major Ronald Milam Sr. was in the American Airlines Flight 77 which crashed right outside the Pentagon.
“Honoring the Dreams of our Fathers, Four Teens are Discovering & Rebuilding Hope: The Children of 9/11 —Premiering, Sept. 7.” @FrancescaHowley @people https://t.co/PbC9S3AzEo— Journalist & Artist (@FrancescaHowley) September 1, 2021
For the past two decades, PEOPLE has been documenting their journey and now that they are coming of age, the teenagers are ready to share their next chapter in a documentary Rebuilding Hope: The Children of 9/11, which will stream on discovery+ from September 7. Directed by Ellen Goosenberg Kent, the film has been produced by Talos Films in association with PEOPLE. It follows the lives of four teens— Jamie Gartenberg Pila, Alexa Smagala, Gabi, and Ronald. "I'm the last thing he left behind. I'm strong because of what happened to me. If I can survive that, I can overcome anything," says Alexa.
Jamie, who spent his gap year in Israel and is planning to join the Israeli Army, says, "We tell our story so people understand what happened 20 years ago. I wasn't even born, so I think my generation and the next can connect more if people like me and the other kids share our [stories]. Losing my biological dad at a young age taught me to do everything you can. Help people. Always do the right thing and be brave." As for Ronald, a sophomore student at the University of Texas, San Antonio says, "9/11, it's a part of me — it's something that happened to me and my family but it does not define what I can be. I'm my dad's legacy, but I feel like I'm my own person as well. He built his legacy, and I think it's time for me to build mine."
It must have been undoubtedly difficult for these children to understand why their fathers passed away. Alexa, whose father was a member of Engine 226 in Brooklyn, says, "It was hard growing up and not understanding where he was. I think he had to know he wasn't going to make it out of the building [Tower Two] but he still went in. They made it to the 40th floor. That's when the tower fell. Often when people find out what happened they kind of walk on eggshells, but everyone goes through loss. It's just that the way mine happened is different." For them, it's understandably hard to grieve the loss in a way their mothers do as they have never even met them.
"I have no tangible memories of my dad, so there's nothing concrete. I can't grieve him the way my mother does. She can recall memories. For me, it's not so much a missing feeling, as a longing. I have questions and ideas. But I don't ask what-if questions. There's no answer," explains Gabi. "I think of how he would have wanted my life to be. I honor him by being alive, being happy and living a great life," he added. Documentary director Goosenberg Kent is quite taken by their "optimism" and "sense of responsibility" which he says is "infectious." Kent continued, "Peace and unity aren't just words to these young people — they're the intentions they have for their generation. It was a joy to discover that."
Representative cover image source: Getty | Photo by oday222