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Children of 9/11 honor their dads they never got to know: 'I'm the last thing he left behind'

The stories of four kids who lost their fathers in the terrorist attack have now been made into a documentary titled, "Rebuilding Hope: The Children of 9/11."

Children of 9/11 honor their dads they never got to know: 'I'm the last thing he left behind'
Image Source: Getty Images/Stan Honda-Pool/Representative

Editor's note: This article was originally published on September 2, 2021. It has since been updated.

Twenty-two years ago, four US commercial airplanes were hijacked in a coordinated terrorist attack by Al Queda. Two of the planes crashed into the World Trade Center (WTC) in Lower Manhattan, New York where 2,753 people were killed. As per CNN, following the collapse of the towers, 343 New York City firefighters, 23 New York City police officers, and 37 officers at the Port Authority also passed away. Nearly 80 percent of the victims of the terrorist attack were men. Many of these men left behind their wives and children at the time. Now in their late teens, the children are honoring their fathers.


"I have no tangible memories of my dad, so there's nothing concrete," Gabi Jacobs Dick, 19, told PEOPLE. "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." Gabi's father, Ariel Jacobs, was attending a meeting in Tower One of WTC and all they recovered of him was his briefcase. Gabi was born six days after the tragic incident. "Losing my dad was life-altering, not life-changing," he said. "It altered my path from day one." 


Gabi is one among four teens PEOPLE has documented since their birth till now, following one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in the country. The other teens are Ronald Milam Jr.,  Jamie Gartenberg Pila, and Alexa Smagala, who all lost their dads in the 9/11 attacks as well. Ronald's father was Army Major Ronald Milam Sr., who died when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. James Gartenberg, a commercial real estate broker was trapped inside the 86th floor of the North Tower. Alexa's father, Stanley Smagala Jr., was a firefighter of Engine 226 in Brooklyn who died in Tower Two.


Their stories have been made into a documentary titled, Rebuilding Hope: The Children of 9/11. It is produced by Talos Films in association with PEOPLE. It was directed by Ellen Goosenberg Kent and can be streamed on Discovery+ from September 7. "It's pretty cool if people see us as signs of hope," Ronald stated. "We're just being ourselves." He is now a sophomore studying biology at the University of Texas, San Antonio. "9/11, it's a part of me β€” it's something that happened to me and my family but it does not define what I can be," he added, "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." 


"I'm the last thing he left behind," Alexa said of her father. "I'm strong because of what happened to me. If I can survive that, I can overcome anything." She confessed that it was hard growing up without being able to understand where her father was. The sophomore at the University of Central Florida, said, "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." 


Gabi, a sophomore at Purchase College, saw videos of his father for the first time at 19. "Something about being 19 and hearing my dad's voice for the first time β€” that pushed an emotional button I didn't know I had," he said. "My whole life it was up to my imagination to turn him into a person. There was never anything to go off of except for photos. Seeing him on film with his friends and traveling to Buenos Aires, I was like this is a real person. He's right in front of me." He added, "It was sad but it did not make me sad."


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