See PEOPLE's Incredible 20-Year Journey Documenting the Children Whose Dads Died on 9/11

For nearly two decades, PEOPLE has documented the journey of children whose fathers died on 9/11, before they were born

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9/11 children
PEOPLE's Feb. 25, 2002 cover with the children of 9/11.

For nearly two decades, PEOPLE has documented the journey of children whose fathers died on 9/11, before they were born, from newborns in their mother's arms through their teen years. (At right, a 2002 PEOPLE cover featuring 31 moms and babies left behind.)

Now as they come of age, four of these young adults share their next chapter in a new documentary, Rebuilding Hope: The Children of 9/11. Produced by Talos Films in association with PEOPLE and directed by Ellen Goosenberg Kent, the film will stream on discovery+ beginning Sept 7.

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9/11 children
(L-R) Jamie Gartenberg Pila, Gabi Jacobs-Dick, Alexa Smagala and Ronald Milam Jr. — the teenagers featured in Rebuilding Hope: The Children of 9/11. Victoria Stevens

Born into history, the teens in the documentary — Jamie Gartenberg Pila, Gabi Jacobs-Dick, Alexa Smagala and Ronald Milam Jr. — have a knowingness about the fragility of life.

Read on for more of their moving stories.

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children of 9/11
Ronald Milam Jr. Victoria Stevens

"It's pretty cool if people see us as signs of hope," says Ronald Milam Jr., 19, whose father, Army Major Ronald Milam Sr., died when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. "We're just being ourselves."

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children of 9/11 in 2011
Ronald Milam Jr. in 2011. Nigel Parry/The Licensing Project

Milam Jr., pictured here in 2011, has a special way of keeping his dad close to his heart, he told PEOPLE in 2016.

"I wear number 33 because that's the age my dad was when he was killed on 9/11," Ronald Jr., a basketball player, shared. "When I'm wearing that number, it's for him."

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children of 9/11
Gabi Jacobs Dick. Victoria Stevens

"I have no tangible memories of my dad, so there's nothing concrete," says Gabi Jacobs Dick, 19. "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."

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children of 9/11 in 2011
Nigel Parry/The Licensing Project

Jacobs Dick also spoke to PEOPLE in 2016 about an unspoken bond he shares with his late father.

"Some people believe in God or the greater power, but I believe in the people that loved you or would have loved you sticking around after they die and guiding you through whatever troubles you have in life," said Jacobs Dick, pictured here in 2011. "But I also know he's out there – somewhere, guiding me along my path in life."

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gabi jacobs-dick
Courtesy Jacobs-Dick Family

"I'm very lucky that I had Gabi so soon after Ari died, because I had somewhere to put my love and someone who needed me to be well," his mom Jenna Jacobs told PEOPLE in 2016. "Because I don't think I would have been well by myself, but my baby needed me to be well."

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children of 9/11
Jamie Gartenberg Pila. Victoria Stevens

"I find that I'm constantly reminding myself of the balance between grieving, but still moving on and moving forward," says Nicole Gartenberg Pila. She and her younger sister Jamie (pictured), 19, lost their father, Jim Gartenberg, who was killed in Tower 1.

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children of 9/11 in 2011
Jamie Gartenberg Pila in 2011. Nigel Parry/The Licensing Project

"My mom tells me all the time that I'm like [my dad]," Gartenberg Pila (here in 2011) told PEOPLE in 2016. "She says I'm brave like him."

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jamie pila
Jamie Gartenberg Pila and her mom Jill Gartenberg Pila. Courtesy Pila Family

Jill Pila was three months pregnant with Jamie on 9/11, and welcomed her daughter six months and one day after the tragedy. "He had to know that he was not making it out of there," Jill recalls of 9/11, when her husband briefly called into WABC after the first plane hit.

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children of 9/11
Alexa Smagala. Victoria Stevens

"What happened to my dad," says Alexa Smagala, whose father was firefighter Stan Smagala, "made me who I am today — and I want people to know that."

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children of 9/11 in 2011
Alexa Smagala in 2011. Nigel Parry/The Licensing Project

Smagala is saddened by the fact that she has no pictures with her father. She's happy they share the same blond hair and blue eyes, but she struggles to revisit 9/11, she told PEOPLE in 2011. "When I see the people running from the building that day, I know my dad was telling them to get out," she said. "Now I think he makes the sun shine."

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alexa and dena smagala
erica Berger

For the widowed moms, these babies were "the last kiss, the last gift" from husbands and partners, says Dena Smagala, pictured here kissing newborn Alexa, who was born on Dec. 9, 2001.

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9/11 children
PEOPLE's cover. Victoria Stevens

For more on the children of 9/11, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here. And don't miss Rebuilding Hope: The Children of 9/11, streaming exclusively on discovery+ beginning Sept. 7.

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