Teen Born After Firefighter Dad Died on 9/11: 'I Definitely Felt That a Part of Me Was Missing'

"Everyone says that I am just like my dad," Alexa Smagala says in Rebuilding Hope: The Children of 9/11, streaming now on discovery+

It was only recently that Alexa Smagala learned her firefighter father wasn't supposed to work on Sept. 11, 2001.

"He switched his shift because my mom had a sonogram the next day and he didn't want her to go alone," the 19-year-old tells PEOPLE. "All these memories rushed into my head: my sweet 16, graduation, moving to college — and I thought, 'He could have been there.' "

Her father, Stan Smagala, was a member of FDNY Engine 226 in Brooklyn.

"He went into Tower 2 probably knowing they weren't ever going to come out," Alexa says. "He made it to the 40th floor. That's when the tower fell."

His body was never recovered.

Alexa is one of the children who were not yet born when their fathers died on 9/11. For about two decades, PEOPLE has documented their journey, from newborns in their mother's arms to young adulthood. Now the teenagers and their families are opening up about 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 is now streaming on discovery+.

"Everyone says that I am just like my dad," Alexa says in an exclusive clip from the documentary above. "But the bravery level is a little different, so I think of him as this magnificent person, and I do think he was such a hero."

children of 9/11
Alexa Smagala. Victoria Stevens

"Growing up, I definitely felt that part of me was missing," Alexa says of losing her father. "As a kid, seeing everyone get ready for the father-daughter dance, it was horrible. I just thought, 'Well, I can't go.' There was a point in middle school [when] I didn't want to leave my mom's side."

The anxiety "stemmed from losing my dad — that you just don't know what's going to happen," she explains. "I eventually talked to a therapist. I learned how to cope. At some point I realized he's not here anymore and I can't bring him back."

"I don't know if I would say I accept it, but at some point you have to," she adds, "because there's only so much you can grieve."

Now 51, mom Dena Smagala remembers how the loss impacted her daughter's childhood.

"When she was little she would ask where he was buried," she says. "She eventually stopped asking."

"How are you going to tell a 4- or 5-year-old what actually happened?" Dena continues. "It was hard for me to understand what happened to him, much less explaining it to a 5-year-old."

Looking back, Alexa feels the tragedy also gave her strength.

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

"Experiencing loss a such a young age taught me I can overcome anything," she says. "It definitely made me stronger."

Though she never got the chance to meet her father, Alexa feels his presence.

"At my graduation, a butterfly landed on my leg," she says. "I thought, 'He's here.' "

A sophomore of the University of Central Florida, Alexa is studying to become a speech pathologist and wants to work with kids. And she's learned to slowly spread her wings.

"As I've gotten older, I've started to live more in the moment, trying to live life to the fullest," she says. "I just went sky diving for the first time. I was petrified, but it was the best experience of my life. It's like you're in the middle of nowhere and you can see everywhere — seeing the world beneath you, just letting go. It was on my bucket list. I want to be able to say I did everything I wanted to."

On this Sept. 11, she will go back to her dad's Brooklyn firehouse with her mom and her younger sister Sophia, 10.

Watch the full episode of People Cover Story: The Children of 9/11 on PeopleTV.com or on the PeopleTV app.

"When I go to the firehouse, it's a rush of many different emotions," she says. "It was the last place he was. He spent all his time there. His locker is still there and I like the idea that it's untouched. There's a mirror on the wall that says, 'Mirror, Mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all? It's you Stan' — because it was an ongoing joke that he was so handsome."

RELATED VIDEO: 4 Teens Who Were Not Yet Born When Their Dads Died on 9/11 Reveal Their Struggles and Triumphs

Alexa is one of four teens who reflect on life, their intense bonds with their mothers and their own dreams for the future in Rebuilding Hope: The Children of 9/11, which is executive produced by Julian P. Hobbs and Elli Hakami for Talos Films and Liz McNeil, Cynthia Sanz and Dan Wakeford for PEOPLE.

"She's all we have left of him," Dena says of her daughter. "We have memories and we have Alexa. Hopefully she can live the way Stan lived, doing good for people, because that was his thing. He died the way he lived, helping people."

For more on the children of 9/11, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now, 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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