The children of 9/11: haunted by their fathers’ last hours, some dread the anniversary
Twin brothers, Mike Friedman, left, and Dan Friedman were 11 years old when their father, Andrew Friedman, died on 9/11. Photograph: Desiree Rios/The Guardian
Children who lost a parent that day share a burden of grief, prying questions and ubiquitous footage of the disaster that killed their parents
Robyn Higley has always hated September. It’s the month when everything bad happens, when her spirits, generally so bright and bubbly the rest of the year, grow bleak and deflated.
She feels sad in September. Though she doesn’t fully understand why.
As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, she knows that this September is going to be worse than even the 19 others she has lived through. The media will endlessly reprise that terrible day, there will be an outpouring of patriotic fervor and emoting, and she will be even more on show than in previous years.
“I do not like it all,” she said. “Yes I get it, the 20th is a big thing. But there’s so much expectation of how I’m supposed to feel. People expect this grieving little girl who’s so heartbroken. But I’m almost 20 years old, I’m grown up now.”
It’s complicated being Robyn Higley around 9/11. How should she grieve for the father whom she never met? What should she make of the label that has been pinned to her throughout her life – “9/11 baby” – when she herself was not even there on that tragic day?
Vycki Higley, with daughter Robyn, who was born seven weeks after her father died in the World Trade Center. Photograph: Mark Peterson/Corbis/Getty Images
On 11 September 2001 her father, Robert Higley – Robbie as he was known to all – went to work on the 92nd floor of the south tower of New York’s World Trade Center. An insurance executive, he had started a new job three months before and was excited that day to have been asked to step up as acting manager.
When the north tower was struck at 8.46am, Robbie called his wife Vycki and told her that something had happened in the other building but that he was fine. “It was an agonizingly short conversation when I look back on it now,” Vycki Higley said.
It took Vycki time to piece together what happened next. Her husband helped evacuate 12 of his colleagues, ushering them into an elevator that was one of the last to reach the ground floor before United Airlines flight 175 slammed into the south tower at 9.03am.
Robbie didn’t make it out. He chose not to get into the elevator because he wanted to “do the managerial thing”, Vycki said, and make sure everyone else was all right.
Vycki was left a widow on 9/11, a single mother caring for her four-year-old daughter Amanda. She was also heavily pregnant with Robyn.
By the time Robyn was born seven weeks later, on 3 November 2001, the “9/11 baby” was already a celebrity. Such was the level of interest in her as a newborn victim of the twin towers attacks that a camera crew from ABC News’ 20/20 was present in the delivery room at her birth.
“It was hilarious,” Robyn said. “When my mom went into labour she got to the hospital and found ABC News already waiting for her.”
Robyn Higley is one of 105 children who were in the womb when their fathers were killed in the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. As a member of this exceptionally rarified club, she entered the world and grew up in an environment in which her identity had already been set for her.
Widows of 9/11 with their newborns. Photograph: Mark Peterson/Corbis/Getty Images
As a young child she started to understand that something monumental had happened on the day her father lost his life, but she had no idea how to process it. “I knew what 9/11 was about but I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel. Those are very complex questions for a five-year-old,” she said.
Vycki was equally blindsided by the challenge of bringing up two young girls in the wake of the booming calamity of the terrorist attacks. What was she supposed to tell them?
“Nobody gave anybody a book,” she said. “There wasn’t a twin towers manual telling us what to do, how to raise two young children who lost their father in this tragic thing.”
There were issues for Robyn with her older sister Amanda. They were best friends and extremely close but their contrasting experiences of 9/11 – Amanda aged four, Robyn yet to be born – led to tensions and rivalries.
“There’s a lot of jealousy between them,” Vycki said. “As a 9/11 baby born after her father died, Robyn got all the media attention, which annoyed Amanda. But Robyn is jealous that Amanda had four years with their father, and she had nothing.”
Every time 11 September rolled round the spotlight on Robyn would intensify. “It was awful throughout high school. People who weren’t even my friends would come up to me and be like, ‘Hey, how are you doing? Are you OK?’ And they’d say it in a way like they expected me to want the sympathy and the pity.”
Robyn Higley and two other children of 9/11 appeared on ABC’s The View. Photograph: Lou Rocco/Disney General Entertainment Content/Getty Images
At times she got the eerie feeling that people wanted her to burst into tears or have a dramatic breakdown. “They wanted me to collapse. Every time a 9/11 announcement would play at the moment the first tower fell and I would start to react, you would see all the eyes gravitate towards me.”
This year for the first time Robyn, Amanda and Vycki will attend the official 9/11 commemoration at Ground Zero. Having shunned the globally broadcast event for so long, Vycki said she had come to the view that “this just seems the year to do it”.
It’s already causing Robyn some distress. Seven weeks after the 20th anniversary she will herself turn 20, and that has got her thinking about how she is not that many years away from 29, the age her father was on 9/11.
“I’m getting closer to the age he was when he died. When I’m 30 I’m going to be doing things he never got to do, like dropping off my kid at kindergarten, which he never did with me. That is insanely baffling when you think about that,” she said.
‘Such concentrated loss’
The 105 babies of 9/11 are a subset of a much larger community of children who lost a parent in the twin towers, the Pentagon or on board United Airlines flight 93, which crashed in a field near Shanksville. All told, some 3,051 kids were bereaved – usually from the death of their father given that seven out of eight of the victims of 9/11 were male.
For the past 20 years Terry Sears has been immersing herself in the world of the children of 9/11. She is executive director of Tuesday’s Children, a non-profit set up days after the attacks on a mission to provide support and long-term healing for the kids left behind.
In the runup to the anniversary Sears has been rewatching old footage shot by the charity in the early years when they would take the children on day trips. What has struck her most is simply the scale of the loss.
“You’d have a picnic in New Jersey or a beach party on Long Island, and hundreds of kids would turn up who all lost a parent on that day. It was such concentrated loss. Looking at the footage today, it’s still overwhelming.”
Maggie Smith, left, and Charlotte Smith, whose father died on 9/11, attended a gala hosted by Tuesday’s Children in New York City. Photograph: Paul Morigi/Getty Images
Over the years Sears has come to see shared experiences between the children. One of the most potent was the ever-present nature of 9/11, the sense that you couldn’t escape its grasp no matter how hard you tried.
“It was on the news every day. Just as you started watching TV after school those images of the buildings collapsing would come back on. So for 9/11 kids, their stories were played out in public every day for years.”
Sears noted another powerful shared experience that Robyn Higley also articulated – the tyranny of other people’s expectations. “So many 9/11 kids told me that over the years they would try just to be themselves,” Sears said. “They would get a new job and would be so disappointed when someone said to them ‘I heard you lost your dad’, because they didn’t want the pity, they just wanted to be normal.”
Mike Friedman is intimately acquainted with the shadow that 9/11 has placed over its children. He and his twin brother Dan were 11 on the day they lost their father.
“9/11 is the only tragedy that is associated with a specific date, so nobody lets you forget it,” Mike said. “It’s on the news, on TV, on the internet. You never become fully immune to that – in the week up to 9/11 I’m never feeling like my normal self.”
Even before the attacks, the brothers had a special connection to the enormous World Trade Center skyscrapers in downtown Manhattan. The link stems from the most notable feature about the brothers – their height. Mike is 6ft 11in and Dan 6ft 9in.
For years they were the tallest people at their school, teachers included, and they acquired a nickname that paid homage to their stature. It was given to them by the basketball superstar Magic Johnson, who they had the chance to meet at one of their mother’s work functions; he signed an autograph for them, writing: “To the Twin Towers, best of luck”.
The nickname stuck. Mike and Dan were now the Twin Towers, well before their dad Andrew Friedman, a 44-year-old equity sales trader, went to work that day on the 92nd floor of the north tower.
‘It’s on the news, on TV, on the internet,’ Mike Friedman said. ‘In the week up to 9/11 I’m never feeling like my normal self.’ Photograph: Desiree Rios/The Guardian
There are striking differences between the experiences of the twins and Robyn Higley. Unlike her, they were very much present on the day and vividly recall being called out of class by the school principal and told a plane had hit their father’s building in New York but not to worry, he was fine.
They went about the rest of the day as though nothing had happened. They remember having fun at a neighbour’s house, swimming in the pool and enjoying a barbecue.
It was not until the following day that their mother, Lisa Friedman Clark, sat them down and told them: “Guys, I don’t think your dad’s coming home.”
But there are also affinities among the 9/11 children. Like Robyn, it took the twins many years to scratch together what had happened to their father. Lisa wanted to shield them from painful details until they were old enough to take them in.
So they grew up thinking that their father had been OK until the north tower collapsed, that he had had “plenty of air”, as Lisa told them. Dan was left with the impression that the 92nd floor had been a quiet and contemplative place until the very end.
When they were in their early 20s their mother shared with them the truth. “She told us that he had an hour and a half of hell, trapped on the floor. He was coughing a lot when she was on the phone with him. There was smoke, the walls were caving in, the stairwell was inaccessible, people were choking and jumping out of the building. That was painful to hear.”
All the 9/11 children have had struggles over the years. The Friedmans saw child therapists to help them through the grieving process.
Robyn had severe bouts of paranoia as a child. She would have separation anxiety from her mother, and would enter a movie theatre only after someone had scouted it and declared it to be safe.
“I grew up knowing that my dad walked into work one day and never walked out. That made me very scared to walk into any situation.”
Memorabilia have helped them gain a closer connection with their lost fathers. The twins have quilts that a stranger from Oregon knitted them, made out of Andrew’s college shirts and other clothes, and Dan keeps one of his dad’s golf clubs in his locker at the Long Island club where they play.
Robyn has a stuffed animal, a pink bunny, which her father bought for her when he and Vycki learned that their unborn child was going to be a girl. She has found the bunny very soothing over the years, helping her to confront one of her greatest anguishes – that her father never knew who she was.
“I struggled with that for a long time, that he doesn’t know who I am. But he knew I was a girl, I know that because he bought me stuff and that gave me a little comfort. He knew about me, who I was; he was excited about me.”
The 9/11 kids have also had shared moments of unexpected exhilaration, none stranger than the killing in May 2011 of Osama bin Laden. His death in Pakistan at the hands of US Navy Seal team six was announced while Robyn and her family were celebrating her sister Amanda’s 14th birthday. “We celebrated with a chocolate cake. It was really good,” she said.
There were even what you might call perks of being a 9/11 kid celebrity. Robyn was taken backstage at the Broadway hit musical Hairspray. “I got to stand in a giant hairspray canister – that was the coolest thing for a six-year-old.”
Every summer for a week she went to “America’s Camp”, a play setting in the countryside expressly for the children of 9/11. She came to regard it as a safe haven, a place where she didn’t have to talk about “it”, where you didn’t have to explain yourself.
As the years passed, Robyn said, her appreciation of the father she never met deepened. When she was young he was just a photograph to her; now she has fleshed out his profile into a rounded human being.
She sees him as this “crazy funny goofball who liked to make people laugh. He was just one of the greatest people ever.”
All things considered, Robyn is amazed by how well she has emerged, the 9/11 baby metamorphosed into an independent, strong woman. “I’m insanely surprised by how good I’ve turned out given how much there was against me.”
She has only two regrets. She longs for her father to be around to see her blossom. “I wish he could see just how proud I am of myself.”
The other regret relates to 9/11 itself. Just occasionally she allows herself to reflect on how Robbie sacrificed his own life to save others. “He was a hero and I love that,” she said. “But there are moments I get mad – why didn’t he get into that elevator?”