The Children of 9/11
Ronald Milam Jr.
Jamie Gartenberg Pila
Gabriel Jacobs Dick
They were just newborns, and yet they brought comfort to their widowed mothers and became symbols of hope for a nation reeling over the tragedy of Sept. 11. Now, 10 years later, the milestones of their young lives-the first days of school, the dance recitals, the baseball games-have served as proof that life carries on even in the face of unthinkable loss.
“Grace taught me that happiness and sadness coexist,” Mary Danahy says of her daughter.
On Father’s Day we sat down with the mothers and children, some of whom we first met in 2002. The years have been an emotional, confusing and often joyous journey for both mother and child: Several women have remarried and expanded their families; birthdays are bittersweet, and little things like a smile or gesture that’s just like their husbands’ can still take a mother’s breath away. And while the children may no longer ask, “Is Daddy in heaven? ” it saddens them still that they have no photographs of themselves with their fathers.
The horror unleashed that September morning reverberates to this day in stump speeches, airport security lines and seemingly endless foreign wars. And many of these children of 9/11 have begun to grasp that their fathers’ stories are part of something much bigger. But while they have also come to accept that, they refuse to be defined by it. “Jamie is very confident. She knows she is part of history, and she’s okay with that,” said Jill Gartenberg Pila of her daughter. For Jenna Jacobs-Dick, most days her son Gabriel “doesn’t really want to know about 9/11 because he’s just busy being a 9-year-old.” And for that, the moms are deeply thankful.
‘He Would Have Liked Me’
LAUREN MCINTYRE, 9
New City, N.Y.
Donald McIntyre, 38, Port Authority Police Officer, Tower 2
Jeannine McIntyre, 46: Lauren will always say, ‘My daddy died a hero.’ But when she was younger, she would ask, ‘Why didn’t he come home?’ A few times she made up stories where she said, ‘Daddy and I did this,’ but Donald [her brother, now 13] would tell her it’s not true. Then she says, ‘He would have liked me.’
My husband went in that day to do an overtime shift to make some extra money before Lauren was born. He was excited about having another girl and picked out her name. Lauren was probably 5 or 6 when she started realizing her friends had dads, and she’d ask, ‘Where’s my dad?’ His death was very hard for all the kids. After I told her sister Caitlyn, now 15, she was very quiet and so sad. Donald was very angry and acted out for a long time. We still talk about him a lot, and I say, ‘That was one of Daddy’s favorite songs,’ if I hear it on the radio. Ten years later I almost feel like I’m running out of material. Last year we watched a 9/11 news segment that mentioned kids who looked like their dads. When they flashed her picture on the screen, she thought it was so cool at first, and then she started crying. She doesn’t ask about her dad as much anymore, but I bring him up. She has a picture of him in her room, and there are pictures of him all over the house-so she sees him every day. She wears a pendant that has his picture on the back and a cherub on the front. She wears it all the time so she can be close to her dad.
Dad Is Her Guardian Angel
ALEXA SMAGALA, 9
Stanley Smagala Jr., 36, Firefighter, Tower 2
I always ask my mom to see pictures of my dad and me, but then I remember there aren’t any. That makes me sad. People say I can curl my tongue like him, raise my eyebrow and tell jokes like him. Everyone says I look like him. I think so too. He had blond hair and blue eyes-like me. My dad was a firefighter who died when the Twin Towers fell. One time, a few years ago, I asked my mom when we passed a cemetery if Daddy was buried there. Mom said no and that she’d tell me when I get older. Now I know. I don’t like listening to the story of what happened to my dad. I know it was his job, but I wish sometimes he wasn’t so brave. When I see the people running from the building that day, I know my dad was telling them to get out. Now I think he makes the sun shine. If he knows I need a nice day, like on my birthday, he doesn’t make it snow.
Dena Smagala, 41: I’ve been telling her ever since she was born that her father is with her. She’ll ask, ‘How come I don’t have a daddy?’ and I say, ‘Daddy is up in heaven,’ and she’ll say, ‘Oh yeah.’
In 2009 Dena Smagala reconnected with Bill Primavera, 42, an attorney and high school friend, on Facebook. They are engaged and have a 6-month-old baby, Sophia.
Alexa: Now it’s not just me and Mommy. It’s me, Sophia, Mommy and Billy. He gives me piggyback rides. I love having him in my life.
‘I Wish My Dad Could Be Here’
RODNEY WOTTON, 9
I have a stuffed animal in my room that my dad picked out for me before I was born. It’s a dog, brown and fluffy. I keep him in my bed. He’s warm and makes me think of my dad. I wish that the Twin Towers were never attacked. I think about why did my dad have to work in that building. It’s not fair.
I have one favorite picture of him. You can only see the sky and Dad. Sometimes I imagine being there with him. My mom says I kind of look like him. It’s probably the hair. My mom and grandma tell me he liked pizza and spaghetti. Me too. I like knowing we liked the same things. I think of my dad when I’m really mad. I don’t really know why. Probably because he would take my side.
Dorothea Wotton, 11: I am very protective of my brother. I tell him a little bit about Dad. I don’t remember much. I was almost 2 when he died. But I told him he was really happy about Rodney, about having another baby.
Patricia Wotton, 49: The lack of male bonding in Rodney’s life has been difficult. We tried Boy Scouts for two years. I was the only woman there, but Rodney didn’t feel comfortable with that. I try to fill in the gaps, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t replace a male. Sometimes kids can be mean. Someone asked him why would he watch football if he didn’t have a dad. He felt excluded because all of the boys watch football with their dads. I told him I could teach him. I told my son that he was part of something big. I said because of what he went through as a child, he can do great things one day.
Rodney Wotton, 36, IT Manager, Tower 2
ALLISON LEE, 9
Dan Lee, 34, Stagehand, Flight 11
Mom Kellie Lee, 42, met Chris Riordan, 54, a plumber, in 2003, when he came to give her an estimate on a home repair, and they married in 2005: When Dan died, I never thought I’d ever be happy again. And now today, I’m happier than I ever imagined I could be. Sometimes I feel guilty. When I look at pictures of the girls [Allison and her sister Amanda, 12, right], I am amazed at how happy they look. If I didn’t know better, I wouldn’t know anything was out of the ordinary. It wasn’t easy to create a happy world when my world had crumbled. I am proud of myself for that. Chris is upbeat, kind and funny, all the qualities Dan possessed. They even share the same birthday.
Allison: I love Chris, my stepdad, so much. I call him Dad. I know I have another Dad but I never met him. For show-and-tell last year, I brought in a snow globe of New York City. I wanted to bring it in because it reminds me of my first daddy. I told them my dad’s plane crashed into the twin towers. I was nervous but it made me feel better. I got to share my story with everyone. Before that, only my best friend knew. On my dad’s birthday, I write cards to him and send them to him in heaven that say, ‘I love you and I miss you Daddy.’
Making a Blended Family Work
PARKER FYFE-KIERNAN, 9
Karleton Fyfe, 31, Financial Analyst, Flight 11
Dan Kiernan, 40: I knew I wanted to marry Haven, and I just decided that I would try to be a dad for the boys too. I imagined myself as an old guy looking back and how I would feel about myself if I missed an opportunity to have a much richer life. I could never obviously replace Karleton. So I try to be loving and affectionate with them, just like a biological dad would be. When I was about to adopt the boys last year, our lawyer said there’s a chance for a name change. So we brought it up with the boys one night at the dinner table. Parker usually waits to see what Jackson’s going to do. But he spoke up before Jackson and said, ‘I wanna be Parker Fyfe-Kiernan.’ He wanted to hyphenate just like his mom. And Jackson [now 11] said, ‘Actually I want to keep my name the same.’ So he is Jackson Fyfe. And then our third son is Owen Kiernan. It’s kind of neat. We’re truly a blended family.
Haven Fyfe-Kiernan, 40. (She met Dan through his sister, also a 9/11 widow): Parker’s extremely adaptable, very emotionally open. It’s just so hard for him to understand his part because he never met Karleton. So he’s really embraced the new family. Jackson is very funny, like his dad. He’s just very complex. He has really felt this loss, the absence of Karleton. And he has a very hard time processing it. Owen, 5, doesn’t get at all yet that the boys had a different dad; he thinks he had a daddy Karleton too, so he just goes right along.
She Takes It All In
JAMIE GARTENBERG PILA, 9
James Gartenberg, 35, Commercial Real Estate broker, Tower 1
Jill Gartenberg Pila, 44: I think 9/11 is still abstract for Jamie. It was a story that happened before she was born. She didn’t experience the world changing. She knows she’s her dad’s namesake, but it’s hard for her to grasp, whereas her older sister Nicole, 12, is very sensitive about the topic. She remembers her dad and it’s harder for her. She has the memories to hold on to. Jamie has his personality. She makes everyone laugh. She’s very friendly. If there’s a kid in the class who needs extra help, she’s the first one to do that-and that was Jimmy. As Jamie gets older, she realizes the loss she had has affected everyone. She doesn’t say a lot about it. She takes it all in and you can see she’s processing it. I think she’s still not sure why it happened. At 9, how can a child understand?
Jill Gartenberg met widower Jay Pila through an online dating site. They wed in 2004, combining their families: her two daughters and his two children, Arielle, 17, and Ross, 12.
We all had a loss but we’re coming into this together. Jay and I are working really hard on blending this family. Because the kids were young, it was easier. Now they treat each other like siblings, for better or worse. Jamie and Ross are close. They go outside and play hockey or shoot baskets after school, and Jamie will go into Arielle’s room while she’s doing her homework to hang out. It wasn’t like all of a sudden we’re one family though. It took time.
‘Dad, Life’s Going Great’
GABRIEL “GABI” JACOBS DICK, 9
Ariel Jacobs, 29, Sales Executive, Tower 1
Every year on 9/11, we send balloons up to my dad, Ari, with notes. We write about things we want to talk to him about, or I give him an update on how my life is going. Mostly it’s ‘I miss you’ or ‘Life’s going great’ or ‘I just won a championship in baseball.’ I’m a catcher and a third baseman. I’ve got a good arm. My new dad officially adopted me when I was in the second grade. But he was already my dad who lived with me. Just my last name changed. Instead of feeling like I have two dads, I feel like I am two Gabis. When my dad is on a business trip and isn’t here, I feel like I’m the first Gabi, who lives with his mom and is an only child. When my dad is here, I feel like the second Gabi, who has two brothers, an older stepsister and-how do I say this?-an adoptive dad. Maddie (my older stepsister) is easy to talk to. We grew up together and have so much in common. With my younger brothers, nothing traumatizing happened to them, so they’re a little different than me. Ten years since my first dad died on Sept. 11, I don’t exactly know how to deal with it because I never really knew him. Last year my birthday party was on Sept. 11 and we still sent the balloons up. We can’t forget that.
Gabriel with his brothers Brenner (top) and Westley (bottom).
‘I’m Part of History’
ROBYN HIGLEY, 9
Robert Higley, 29, Insurance Executive, Tower 2
Vycki Higley-Pratt, 40: Rob always thought he was going to die young. He didn’t want me to be alone if something happened to him. Both my husbands knew each other. We had mutual friends and even went camping together once. I think Rob would be okay that I remarried. I thought it was right because I wanted to secure the children. Our marriage has been a roller coaster. Rick, my second husband, had no idea what he was stepping into. But I can say I am still standing and we are still together. Life has not been easy for us. Nobody gave us a manual for these kids. My daughter Amanda, 14, has a lot of dreams about her father. She talks to him, which helps her to fall asleep. For Robyn, not having her dad is something she’s always known. She is very intense but she’s adjusted well. Rick came into her life when she was very young.
Robyn: A few years ago, I started reading the Pledge of Allegiance at our town’s memorial service on 9/11. I like people knowing that I am growing up being part of history. My friends at school help me. My best friend sat next to me at the lunch table on 9/11, and we looked at my necklace, which has a picture of my dad on it. I usually only wear it on that day. I want to know all the stories about my dad. I would have loved to have known my daddy, Rob, but I’ve always felt that I have a dad. Rick is totally my dad. I adore him. His mom is another grandmother, so I have three grandmothers. It’s just more family for me to love.
He Loves Being a Big Brother
RONALD MILAM JR., 9
San Antonio, Texas
Maj. Ronald Milam, 33, U.S. Army, Pentagon
Jacqueline Milam, 43: My main focus was trying to make sure my kids Ronald Jr. and MyeJoi  were okay. I was all right if my babies were okay. I didn’t need anything else. It was just going to be my kids and me for the long haul. Ronald Jr. is a happy kid, though when we talk about his dad, you can tell that he wishes he would have known him. He wasn’t born yet and didn’t get the chance. I wish they could have had a moment; I would give anything for that. I do see a lot of their dad in my kids, especially in my son. He looks just like his father. He smiles like him.
Milam reconnected with John Roussell, 43, her fiance, through a class reunion site in 2009.
Eight years after 9/11, I happened to meet John again. I had no plans of meeting anybody. John’s the first guy I dated since my husband. I think the only reason I felt okay was because I knew him before. Actually, I’ve known him since first grade. He’s my second chance at love and I’m loving it. We now have John Adam [7 months]. He is part of my second chance. I didn’t know that my kids wanted a brother or sister so badly until I got pregnant. They were like, ‘I didn’t know you could have another baby!’ Ronald Jr. absolutely loves being a big brother. John is in our lives and Ronald Jr. is loving that too. He’s like, ‘I really like him being here, Mommy.’ I didn’t realize that my son really missed having another male in his life. We women think we can do it all, we really do-a little lesson learned for me.
‘Are My Eyes Like Daddy’s?’
GRACE DANAHY, 9
Yorktown Heights, N.Y.
Mary Danahy, 43: Grace keeps a photo of Patrick in her bedroom. He’s holding her older sister Katie, 12, the day she came home from the hospital, while her oldest sister, Alison, 13, stands nearby. I think Grace likes to imagine he is holding her. Her sisters have pictures and videos with him. She doesn’t and that’s hard. For a while Grace kept an ultrasound photo in her room because she knew that was the one photo her dad had seen of her. She looks for ways to be close to him, whether it’s by kissing his picture or hearing stories about how they are alike. She asks, ‘Are my eyes like Daddy Patrick’s?’ He was passionate about cycling and she sleeps with one of his bike jerseys every night. After Grace was born, there were so many times I was just standing over her on the changing table with tears just rolling off my cheeks. Patrick was supposed to be there and he wasn’t. Six months after she was born, my oldest daughter, Alison, said, ‘Mommy, are you ever going to stop crying?’ That was the turning point. I knew I had to pull myself together.
In 2003 Danahy met Andy Sammel, 47, at church, where he offered to help her with chores around the house; they married in 2005.
I never thought I’d get married again. But Andy was exactly what the girls needed. Today all three girls call Andy ‘Dad.’ He is closest to Grace. She really needed that father figure and just bonded with Andy right away. She understands that Daddy Patrick is her biological dad but loves to do special things with Andy. They always share the couch, and she does the ice-cream run with him. She’s his buddy.
Grace: I like feeling close to my Daddy Patrick. When my mom said he liked bike riding, I asked that day if I could learn to ride a bike. My dad, Andy, taught me how to ride on the weekends in the school parking lot. I never really think of my new father as a stepdad. I just think of him as my regular dad, but I don’t forget Daddy Patrick. Every night I pray, and sometimes I talk to him and tell him, ‘Good night.’
Patrick Danahy, 35, Portfolio Manager, Tower 2
“WATCHING THE KIDS GROW UP HAS BEEN BITTERSWEET, BUT 10 YEARS LATER IT’S NOW MORE SWEET AND LESS BITTER”
“Darkness loomed for a long time. It took a while for the happiness to peek through.”
“When Bin Laden was killed, Rodney opened up for the first time about his feelings about 9/11.”
“I don’t want her ever to think she doesn’t have a father, because she does.”
“These kids have lost so much. I don’t want them to experience any more sadness.”
“We should never forget what happened to us the day our world changed.”
“Ten years later I miss him, but it doesn’t hurt in the same way.”
“I never had the option to crumble. I just couldn’t. There was too much to do.”
Jill Gartenberg Pila
“I feel good we can keep going on with our lives but never forgetting. Jimmy would be proud.”
“On 9/11 we go rollerblading or eat burgers at one of his favorite places.”
“Remarriage has been challenging because you have to let go of what was.”