Gen Y is the last generation that will have personal memories of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Now between the ages 18 and 34 years old, most millennials have lived in a post-9/11 world for half their lives and, for many, the tragedy shaped their futures.
amNewYork spoke with six individuals in this age group, all of whom were living in the New York area at the time of the terrorist attacks. Each one had a different experience on the tragic day, but they all recognize the attack as a formative moment for their generation.
“It has an effect on us subconsciously,” Terrease Aiken, who lost her father, said. “And it affects everything we do.”
Victims on 9/11, by borough
- Manhattan: 2,753 (total)
- North Tower: 1,470
- South Tower: 695
- FDNY: 346
- NYPD: 23
- Port Authority Police Department: 37
- Other first responders: 35
- Flight 11: 87
- Flight 175: 60
- Pentagon: 184 (total)
- Flight 77: 59
- Flight 93: 40
“The world changed instantly,” Erin Coughlin, a 31-year-old NYPD officer, said as she stood in front of the Battery Park Police Memorial, which bears her father’s name. She added that her generation went from being sheltered to understanding that “the world’s a little more scary sometimes.”
And for many, it created a sense of cynicism, Absar Alam, 22, said. “We question everything. We question the world. We question everyone’s motives.”
Looking back 15 years later, these six shared their memories, as well as how their perspectives have changed since the attacks.
6 voices, 15 years later
“It took us some time to really cope with the fact that he wasn’t coming back and he was no longer missing.”
On Sept. 11, 2001, Terrease Aiken sat with her two younger brothers in front of the television, hoping to see her dad come out of the smoke.
“I knew if I could just see his face, I would know he was OK,” she said.
Aiken was 8 years old and living on Staten Island at the time. Her father, Terrance, 30, had started work as a computer consultant for Marsh & McLennan in the north tower on Sept. 4, 2001. He was on the 97th floor.
Her mom had tried calling him, but there was no answer. A day went by, and another.
“We didn’t really know what was going on,” Aiken said. “It took us some time to really cope with the fact that he wasn’t coming back and he was no longer missing.”
Aiken, now 23 and a 2016 graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, said it’s still hard to understand what happened that day. “How do you go to work and then a plane just goes into your building?” she asked. At the time, she said, she became scared of everything. “Knowing that you can lose someone like that, so fast and so tragically, I was terrified that that was gonna happen again to my family.”
After the terror attacks, Aiken’s family moved from Staten Island to upstate New York, then to Georgia and then back upstate. She returned to New York City when she started at NYU.
“I always felt like New York was my home,” she said. Even with the memories of 9/11, she said she knows New York is the place she is meant to be. “I can’t just go avoiding a city because of what happened,” she said.
Aiken lived in an NYU dorm on Lafayette and Franklin streets, which is only a 20-minute walk from the World Trade Center. “For the most part I tried not to think about the fact that I was so close to it,” she said.
But Aiken said she tries not to think about 9/11 as only a negative.
“To me it’s a tragedy, but I don’t choose to wear that,” she said. “Because I went through something like that at such a young age, it makes me really appreciate things that are around me and really appreciate life and not want to give up.”
On 9/11, he was a third grader, one of two Muslim students at his Bay Ridge school.
As one of two Muslim students at Our Lady of Angels school in Bay Ridge, third-grader Absar Alam didn’t think much about what it meant to be a Muslim American. After 9/11, “the terms were set for me,” Alam, now 22, said.
He recalls the worry of his parents, who told him only that “crazy people” had piloted planes into the buildings filled with innocent people. His parents fretfully debated as to whether his mother, an immigrant from India, should wear her hijab outside the house. Alam and his younger brother were told to never deny being Muslim, but also not to “create a big deal” out of their faith.
One week after the attacks, “cliques started to form” in school: He and the other Muslim boy were not permitted in any of them. “I felt stigmatized,” Alam recalled. At a schoolwide assembly, the principal laid down the law: Kindness and inclusiveness would be practiced by everyone.
“Sister Elizabeth! Bless her soul. She made it a point to have us included in everything. I was really glad she took that stance.”
Attending Catholic school and maturing in a city that exposed him to “all three major monotheistic faiths” taught him that reasonable Muslims, Christians and Jews share the same beliefs around personal responsibility, the importance of practicing kindness, participating in charitable acts and working to make the world a better place.
But Alam also felt that Muslim Americans seemed not to have equal standing to critique foreign policy having to do with majority Muslim countries.
“Muslims who criticized the Iraq invasion were seen as terrorist sympathizers or having a conflict of interest: It was completely weird,” he said.
He added that the Iraq war created a generation of cynics, largely because weapons of mass destruction, the reason behind the invasion, were never found. “It goes against all our innate yearning for hope. If there is one thing that 9/11 — and then the war in Iraq — taught us, it is that violence is not the answer.”
Alam, who graduated from NYU last year with a degree in business and technology management and finance, is a co-founder of an all-inclusive business services consultancy and is also active in charity work and the nationwide Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association. As a Muslim American, he is especially grateful to non-Muslims who have taken issue with GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump’s rhetoric, and is distressed by those who have subjected his community to unwarranted racial and ethnic profiling as a result of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
“In the overall scope of my life, (9/11) definitely played a role. I like to think it shaped me for the better,” he said. “I want to run for public office. I’d like to run for the City Council — and make a pass at mayor after that.”
Then a junior in high school, she remembers getting the call about her father, a police sergeant who worked in the Bronx.
When Erin Coughlin first heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center, she knew her dad would be at the scene.
Her father, Sgt. John Coughlin, was a member of the NYPD’s ESU Truck 4.
“He worked in the Bronx, so I didn’t think he would be there right away, but I knew he would be there,” she said.
Coughlin, 31, was a junior in high school in Rockland County at the time. She remembers her mother getting a call from an officer who worked with her dad, saying someone was going to pick her mom up and take her to 1 Police Plaza. But Coughlin said she had a gut feeling that something was wrong.
“We knew something was up,” Coughlin said. The phone call confirmed that her father was listed as missing.
She would later learn that her dad, who worked in the NYPD for 18 years, died trying to rescue people trapped in the towers. He was 43.
Coughlin, who joined the police force herself in July 2012, said even at a young age she always knew something bad could happen to her dad any time he left for work.
“Anyone I grew up with who had family members who did other things for a living, they didn’t go to the door and say bye to their dad and tell them that they loved him and to be careful,” she said. “I grew up knowing that at any point it could happen, and our worst nightmare came true.”
But the risks of being a police officer didn’t stop her from becoming one. Now serving in the 33rd Precinct, Coughlin carries a little bit of her dad with her each day. The moment she learned she would be a cop, she decided she wanted to wear the shield number 2275 — the same number her father wore when he was a police officer.
“It’s such an honor that, as I show up to work every day and interact with the public, he’s still with me,” she said. “It’s just that little bit of him I get to keep.”
Coughlin spoke about her dad in front of the Battery Park Police Memorial Wall, which honors NYPD members who died in the line of duty. Coughlin said the wall is more intimate than the Sept. 11 memorial across the street. When she visits by herself, she quietly finds her dad’s name.
“He’s up there right now with his guys,” she said. “His guys are on that wall with him.”
9/11 memorials in NYC
Peter James Kiernan
“Very suddenly, that notion of making the ultimate sacrifice became a reality,” says Kiernan, who joined the U.S. Marines at age 18.
Of the 2,753 people killed in the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, more than 40 came from Peter James Kiernan’s hometown of Babylon.
“Everybody had somebody” they lost or who was grievously affected by the catastrophe, he recalled. In his own family, an uncle working in the north tower who had been relentlessly nagged by his wife to quit smoking was saved because he had left the building while on a smoke break. “After that, he just refused” to even consider stopping, Kiernan said.
“Very suddenly, that notion of making the ultimate sacrifice became a reality,” said Kiernan, who was in seventh grade on 9/11. “Most young men feel some sort of calling for service, to be a part of an organization that is bigger than themselves,” and Kiernan longed to be a part of the nation’s defense.
The terror attacks were a catalyst that drove Kiernan, now 26 and living in Morningside Heights, to join the U.S. Marines when he turned 18, infuriating his schoolteacher mom and contractor-handyman dad, who preferred he go to college. But if the United States is to have a good military, he reasoned, “good people have to join.”
Kiernan said he was the youngest person ever to join the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (he was selected at age 18, graduating at 19) — “then they changed the rules so it can’t happen again,” he said.
After becoming fluent in Pashto and the tradecraft skills of sniping, explosives and intelligence, he was sent to Afghanistan in 2012 as a MARSOC Raider. It was a very bloody time. Mourning Afghan friends and fellow fighters who were killed, the sergeant came to several epiphanies: Terrorism, he realized, takes root easily when people are ignorant and isolated. Peace is more reliably achieved with communication and education than physical aggression.
Kiernan left the Marines in 2013. He is now a senior studying political science at Columbia University and is the president and founder of The Ivy League Veterans Council, an organization devoted to destroying the structural, cultural and institutional barriers confronting veterans at elite universities. His aim, he says, is not only to elevate the role of veterans in national policy, but to help prevent terrorist attacks and unnecessary wars.
“The better educated a society is, the less chance we have of fighting each other. I came to realize I want a bigger impact than just my little corner of a battlefield. I was leading 30 men into the battlefield, but I want to do more to improve their lives … Policy can have disastrous effects on the battlefield: I want to prevent that.”
“On 9/11, these distant debates about politics and foreign policy felt less distant.”
New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres didn’t have an interest in politics until 9/11.
He was 13 years old, living in Throgs Neck, when the Twin Towers were attacked. He recalled getting picked up from school by his older sister and hearing on the radio that a plane had crashed into the north tower.
“I had assumed it was an accident,” he said, until the second plane hit the south tower. Torres sat with his siblings, cousins and uncle at his grandmother’s house and watched the news in shock.
“I got a call from my mother, who was crying hysterically as if the world was coming to an end and she was never going to see me again,” he said.
Fortunately, Torres’ family was safe, but like many New Yorkers, his life had still changed.
“When I was 13 years old, I had no interest in the world, no interest in politics, no interest in foreign policy,” he said. “But on 9/11, these distant debates about politics and foreign policy felt less distant.”
Torres, now 28 and representing District 15 in the Bronx as a Democrat, still struggles with the politics that emerged from 9/11. He recognizes the date as the reason for changes in policing, counterterrorism and surveillance in New York City.
“In every constitutional democracy and every constitutional republic, you have a balancing act between personal freedom and security, but since 9/11, it seems to me this pendulum has swung sharply in the direction of security,” he said. “We live in a more complex world, and I have no easy answers for the right balancing act.”
Torres said he has also become more suspicious of American intervention abroad, adding that he can’t imagine the United States without a presence in the Middle East.
“Even when you seek to do good abroad, there’s no telling what Pandora’s box you’re opening. Intervention in countries that we know very little about can have any number of consequences, can entangle us in asymmetrical warfare for decades,” he said. “Permanent warfare seems to be the legacy of 9/11.”
Because of that sense of endless conflict, Torres said he feels his generation has a more tragic view of the world.
“There’s reason to think millennials are more pessimistic about the future than the generation before,” he said. “Growing up amid 9/11, amid the Iraq War, you have a sense that history will never end, that we’re in a cycle of never-ending violence and warfare.”
Torres said he thinks the city, and country, has struggled to move past 9/11 as it memorializes it each year.
“The challenge for me is, how do you remember 9/11 without becoming enslaved by it?” he said.
9/11 memorials around the world
Leaving school just blocks from the WTC, a 12-year-old Hovitz saw the attacks and their aftermath up close.
The Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers have defined Helaina Hovitz’s entire life and career.
Her school, I.S. 89, was six blocks away from the World Trade Center. After a plane plowed into the north tower, a neighbor retrieving her son from school offered to take Helaina, then a 12-year-old seventh-grader, home with her own son.
The trip home was a nightmare. Hovitz and her neighbors saw people tumbling through the air to their deaths. Then the south and north towers collapsed, enveloping her in a blanket of debris and black smoke.
“We were running for our lives. I kept thinking I was going to die and never see my parents again. I thought we were being bombed. When the second tower fell, we found a loophole by the Smith Houses Projects under the FDR Drive, where we waited for the smoke to clear.” The windows of her apartment facing the towers were black. Cellphone service was nil. “Every second became more and more traumatic,” Hovitz, now 27, recalled.
“People who survived and didn’t lose anyone were lucky, but we still lost a lot — and to this day we don’t feel like we have the right to talk about it,” said Hovitz, who still lives about six blocks from the World Trade Center site.
She grew up resenting not only the destruction of her neighborhood, but the gawking of tourists who came to see the damage. The terror attacks marked the dawning of a new age of fear, and when Hovitz and her classmates returned to school, restrictive new rules hampered their freedom of movement.
Normal teenage angst was amplified by an early experience that taught her “no adult could ever keep us safe.” She experimented with drugs and drank too much, cycling through therapists.
“It took me eight years to get the right diagnosis” of post-traumatic stress syndrome and the correct treatment, she said. Now sober for five years, Hovitz is a graduate of The New School and a journalist who has written for Newsday. She researched the fallout 9/11 had on her fellow students and wrote “After 9/11: One Girl’s Journey Through Darkness to a New Beginning,” which will be released by Skyhorse Publishing in September.
Processing the horror of 9/11 made her realize the importance of hopeful, solution-oriented, inspirational stories instead of dwelling on all that is wrong in the world. That epiphany led Hovitz, earlier this year, to co-found “Headlines for the Hopeful,” a digital news service that spotlights individuals and organizations working to create a better future.
“People need to see there is good in the world and that there are good people looking to help and make a difference,” Hovitz explained. “It’s a cliché, but it’s true: If you can change the way you look at the world, you can change the world.”
Interactive editor: Polly Higgins | Design: Matthew Cassella, James Stewart | Video editor: Matthew Golub | Copy editors: Jennifer Martin, Martha Guevara | Videographers: Alejandra Villa, Yeong-Ung Yang, Charles Eckert