This post originally appeared on our GirlSpeak podcast in 2018. To listen to the episode, click here.
Today marks 20 years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 unfolded. For many, it is a day of remembrance as many lost friends and family in the attack. Those that didn’t personally lose someone are still likely to remember the sense of helplessness they felt as they watched the Twin Towers collapse on their televisions, a plane crash into the Pentagon or a field in Shanksville or heard what happened from their radio. The morning of September 11th was like nothing the United States had seen before. When asked to talk about the attacks, many adults will still struggle to find the words. The panic and chaos that followed seemed impossible to escape. For those living in or near Manhattan, this feeling was only amplified. They had something taken from them. In fact, many reference 9/11 as the day when America lost its innocence.
Now, take a moment, and think of a country losing its innocence. It sounds traumatizing, almost post apocalyptic, but what does America losing its innocence look like? Some may think of the recent terrorist attacks that have taken place or look at tensions rising within our own country. But today, I don’t want to ponder America’s lost of innocence but rather her loss of innocent girls.
There were many people who lost their lives on 9/11, with the total often cited at close to 3,000 people. This number does not include all of those that later died from 9/11 related health effects following the attack or took their own lives as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These 3,000 people were innocent; they knew nothing of what was planned and did nothing to deserve their fate. They, like most of us, woke up and went to work or boarded planes with little idea that this day would be their last day alive. It’s the reason why so many 9/11 survivors suffer from survivor’s guilt. They know it could have easily been them instead of their coworkers, family, or friends. There was no rhyme or reason to who died or who lived. Everyone was vulnerable in a way they had never been before and likely would never be again. What floor you worked on, what train you caught, what time you arrived at your office, these all played life changing roles in that morning for many people.
However, 20 years later, some people have begun to pass over the day without much thought. The anniversary of 9/11 has started to become normalized as more people come of age who did not live through the event. Yet there are many people, in addition to the survivors, who will never be able to shake the emotional response that the day evokes. These are the families that lost someone. Young boys and girls lost the parents they looked up to and parents lost the children they vowed to protect. Grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons. There is a story for every individual. Of their last days, their last goodbyes, of the last time they saw someone before they were taken in a cruel twist of fate..
There are so many 9/11 stories, that it is simply impossible to hear them all. After interning with the National September 11 Memorial and Museum this past summer, I was able to listen to many of the oral histories in their collection. However, now more than ever I realize the unique and complex problem that arises when retelling a city or country’s history. Each story tells a part of the story but no story can possible tell the entire story. These stories are eulogies, they’re last words, they’re love letters, they’re memories.These are stories that are so deeply personal.
These are stories of resilience, loss, survival, hope, community: stories that each of us holds dear. Now, there are certain stories that are more well known, certain people that died and left more of a legacy. The people that come to mind likely are related to what books you’ve read, shows you’ve watched, or more simply who you knew. However, when most people think of 9/11 victims they think of professionals working in the Twin Towers. Those men and women who were working in their offices. What we often fail to remember is that there were people in the planes. There were people who boarded a flight. These people were going on a trip for work, going to visit family, going to return home, going on vacation. The reasons for their plane tickets were often as diverse as the people themselves. They ranged in gender, race, and age.
In fact, there were eight children under the age of twelve that lost their lives that day.
Yes, you often hear of children that lost their fathers or their mothers. Children that lost key members of their families and their lives. However, how often do you hear the stories of the children that lost their own lives due to the actions of these terrorists? These were America’s innocents. More than anyone else lost that day, these children had no idea what they were in for that fateful morning. They were young, full of hope. They were not supposed to die. They were supposed to go on to live their lives. They were supposed to do great things. Unfortunately, their time on Earth was cut short due to the hijackers that took control of United Airlines Flight 175 and American Airlines Flight 77. Though each of these children was special in their own way and their loss was felt by their entire community, this podcast will focus on the five of these children who were girls.
That brings me to five little girls that were killed after boarding a flight that would never arrive at its destination. Christine Lee Hanson age 2, Juliana McCourt age 4, Asia Cottom age 11, Dana Falkenberg age 3, and Zoe Falkenberg age 8. While many young lives were changed, their lives were ended. There is a saying that goes, “when a parent dies, you lose the past but when a child dies, you lose the future.” For the parents and grandparents that lost their children today seventeen years ago, they had to live with this sad reality. These children’s futures were taken from them.
Christine Lee Hanson was the youngest victim at a mere 2 ½ years old. Her grandfather Lee Hanson described her as “the sweetest little girl” and that she “was love personified.” On September 11, 2001, Christine was accompanying her parents to Los Angeles as her father was headed on a business trip. While there, they they would visit her mother’s family in California and visit Disneyland. Instead Peter Hanson called his father Lee Hanson while on the plane to tell him that flight had been hijacked. Christine’s grandparents then later had to watch as the plane hit the South Tower. Christine was a bright toddler who always kept busy. She was loving and caring. This love even extended to her favorite toys which included a red teletubby “that went everywhere with her” that was then replaced by a stuffed Peter Rabbit character. This Peter Rabbit toy was on view in the National September 11 Memorial & Museum back in June of 2015 complete with the Winnie the Pooh stickers she had stuck to its torso. Grandmother Eunice Hanson spoke of how Christine had put stickers on everything she liked sort of as a mark of approval.
Juliana McCourt, similarly, was on her way to Disneyland, “the Happiest Place on Earth,” with her mother Ruth McCourt and her mother’s best friend Paige Farley Hackel. Nicknamed “Miss J,” Juliana was described by Alice Fitzpatrick, a close friend of Ruth’s as “a delicate little flower of a girl, tiny and sweet…” ” She boarded the plane for a week long California trip that would include a trip to Disneyland and a spiritual conference at Deepak Chopra Center for Well Being in San Diego. The trio flew out of Logan Airport in Boston but were unable to get seats on the same plane. Due to this, Paige left on American Airlines Flight 11 while Ruth and Juliana left on United Airlines Flight 175. Both planes were hijacked and flown into the Twin Towers. The story only gets worse when I read that Ronald Clifford, Ruth’s brother, was at the World Trade Center for a meeting and was able to escape but not without wounds, both physical and emotional. That day he watched as the plane, carrying his sister and niece, crashed into the South Tower. He wouldn’t realize this unfortunate connection until much later in the day. Ronald Clifford told ABC News where he was when the second plane hit. He recalls, “I think when I was on the floor saying the Lord’s Prayer…when the second plane hit, just in a strange way maybe Ruth guided me out of there.” David McCourt, Juliana’s father would later found B.R.A.V.E. Juliana, a program of HELP USA, to teach nonviolence and conflict resolution skills to children.
Asia Cottom, age 11, was starting sixth grade at Bertie Backus Middle School in Washington DC. She had been chosen to attend a National Geographic Society conference which was being held off the coast of Santa Barbara, CA at the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. She was set to attend the four-day field trip with her teacher Miss Sarah M. Clark and two of her classmates, Bernard Brown II and Rodney Dickens. She had been ecstatic about her adventure which would include everything from white water rafting to marine wildlife monitoring. Asia had a talent for math and science and hoped to one day become a pediatrician. She also enjoyed things like rollerblading, dancing, and jump roping. She was described by her parents as a natural born leader and a wonderful child. On the morning of September 11, she was dressed in her Tweety bird gear and ready for her trip. Michelle Cottom, Asia’s mother has said that she turned to her faith in the days following Asia’s death. “God had a much higher calling for her. He took a child that just loved Him and had blind faith in Him. Like most children believe in Santa Claus, this child believed in God. Who better to show the world Jesus than through a child?” In january 2016, Asia’s Winnie the Pooh earmuffs were on view in the memorial exhibit at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Asia’s parents have also set up the Asia SiVon Cottom Memorial Scholarship Fund to “assist deserving students who have excelled academically and are pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).” If you would like to learn more about Asia’s life and legacy, I encourage you to read “Asia’s New Wings: The Untold Story of a Young Girl Lost on 9/11” which was co-written by her parents Clifton and Michelle Cottom.
This brings us to sisters Zoe Falkenberg, age 8, and Dana Falkenberg, age 3. They boarded their flight from Dulles International Airport to Los Angeles as the first part of their journey to Australia. Their mother, Leslie Whittington, was about to begin a two month fellowship as a visiting scholar at Australian National University. Zoe is remembered as one of the smallest and brightest in her class. She loved to read and her favorite books were the Harry Potter series. Zoe was also active in Girl Scouts, ballet, and her swim team. Ten years following their death, Katie Fenster, who was best friends with Zoe, spoke of how “she was supposed to come back in November, and we were supposed to have a joint Beanie Babies birthday party.” Her younger sister Dana was only three years old and known for her curly hair. She was seen as a miracle by her parents. She is remembered as being intense, funny, and a charmer. Dana had only recently celebrated her third birthday two months prior.
Judy Feder, a colleague of Zoe and Dana’s mother, has said,
“I think from time to time — and then try not to think — what it must have been like to be on that plane… I think about those intelligent and inquisitive little girls asking questions and how horrifying that must have been.”
I think this is one of the many reasons most people haven’t heard these stories. They’re hard to think about. They’re also hard to forget. They stay with you in a way that other stories may not.
Everyone was a child at one point, and most people have boarded a plane at some point in their life, often for vacation. Not everyone has worked at the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. This story starts off in a way that is eerily reminiscent of our own lives. In fact, if they had reached their destination the story would have been utterly mundane. These children themselves would have probably left out the story of the flight in their stories about their adventures as this was merely part of the journey. However, for some reason, in that beautiful blue sky, these planes diverted from their intended destinations. This changed the course of history and ended these young girls’ lives.
However, I would be amiss if I didn’t mention the young girls who actually survived the attack. Not even one hundred feet from the Twin Towers, there was a daycare called Children’s Discovery Center. Located in World Trade Center 5, the original evacuation plan was to move towards World Trade Center 7 which collapsed later that same day. Instead those daycare had to act fast in order to save the children who ranged from being infants to being a few months old to those children who were just shy of preschool at the age of three or four. They were young and they were helpless but none of them were lost that day. There were ten children that day at the daycare whose parents couldn’t get to them. However, those in charge of taking care of them took their job very seriously. They eventually were able to find shelter at the Head Start Program in the East Village. One teacher spoke of reflected on her fears of these children losing their parents by articulating how all she was thinking was that “we’ll take them in. That’s it whether we could or not. That’s it. Those are our babies. There’s no way they would never ever become orphans.” Thankfully, this was not the case since none of the parents were lost in the attack and instead there was there ten reunions that were able to occur by 3 pm that afternoon. Allison Thrush who was the mother of an eighteen month son named Benjamin recounted how she sort of burst into the room and all the children were fast asleep under a blanket looking so peaceful. She said it seemed like nothing terrible has happened and it was “the most wonderful moment. It just felt like a miracle.” She later spoke about how September 11, 2001 was the worst day of her life and in a strange way it was the best day. Thrush said, “”I believe that in every life there is one gift and that was my gift and the teachers gave it to me.”
This sentiment is one I found time and time again while interning with the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. The material was hard and the stories almost made you lose hope. It just seemed so terrible and unfair. How could this happen? How could we not have saved those people? But then there’s a story of hope, a story that despite all odds something good happened. It’s a reminder that even when everything seems dark that there is a little bit of light if you really look for it. The stories like those of the Children’s Discovery Center were the ones I enjoyed the most. However, if we only focus on the stories with happy ending we risk forgetting about the severity of the event. We risk forgetting the people we vowed we would always remember. The role of history is so critically important in our lives that we can’t turn our backs on it. More than anything, we need to realize that the effects of 9/11 are not over. Not being affected by September 11 is a luxury that many don’t have. The mental and physical effects that exist as a result of the attacks are not exclusively given to first responders or survivors who worked in the Twin Towers. This event affected all people, regardless of age, race, or gender. Unfortunately, this means that no one was safe.
In fact, as recently as 2018, alumni of Stuyvesant High School who were students at the time of 9/11 are coming forward to discuss the health complications they are facing as a result of breathing in the air of Ground Zero. For those not familiar with the area of Lower Manhattan, Stuyvesant is a specialized high school about three to four blocks away from the World Trade Center. Michelle Lent Hirsch, a senior at the time of 9/11, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at age 25. In an article for the NY Post she speaks about how, “A lot of people assumed that young people would be fine. I was only 16 when 9/11 happened.” Shoshana Dornhelm was a sophomore at the time of 9/11 and just finished six rounds of chemo for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. These cases are only a small representation of the young adults now suffering from health conditions such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and rare cancers alike. These physical health diagnoses don’t even touch on the mental side effects these young women face. Lila Nordstrom, a senior at Stuyvesant at the time of 9/11, has recently founded the organization StuyHealth which is an advocacy group for young adults impacted by 9/11 and its aftermath. If you want to hear more about her story, among others, I encourage you to watch the National September 11 Memorial & Museum’s free “Anniversary in the Schools” webinar which is available through their website.
So today, wherever you are in the world, I hope you take a minute to remember the lives lost. The young children who never graduated middle school, that never were able to live out their dreams. The ones who died on their way to Disneyland and still believed in the magic of it all. They knew the world as a place full of love. It’s a tragedy that they were lost and nothing will ever bring them back. It can be hard and disheartening but my last wish for all of you is to live today as they would. Despite all the reasons the world gives people to lose hope, I want September 11 to be a reminder that there is good in the world. There is love, hope, and perseverance. We survived this day seventeen years ago but we all are, were, and will be affected by it for years to come. However, September 11 doesn’t have to be a day for mourning. Remembering the events can include volunteering and helping your local communities. One of two federally recognized days of service in the United States, MyGoodDeed has focused on “turning a day of tragedy into a day of doing something good.”
Former Junior Girl