On September 11, 2001, Liz McNeil was on her way to work at People magazine when she witnessed the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. As the New York deputy bureau chief for the publication at the time, she ran over to report on location there, beginning her life-long connection to the families who lost loved ones that day. Soon after, the magazine had the idea to cover one of the many devastating aftermaths of the tragedy – the children who were born to fathers who had perished and the mothers who had to raise them without their husbands. McNeil was at the first photo shoot they did with the moms and their babies back in early 2002, holding the newborns and speaking to the parents. “They were just in this situation that ... you couldn’t really even describe it; it was so unusual,” she said.
It was during her reporting for its 10-year anniversary where McNeil, whose focus had originally been on the mothers and their resilience, came to a new realization. After sitting down with then-9-year-old Gabriel Jacobs Dick, who was born just six days after his father, Ariel Jacobs, a sales executive who was attending a meeting at Windows on the World, passed away, the narrative suddenly shifted. “I remember walking away from their house on the way to the car, thinking, ‘There’s a whole other story to tell now from the kids’ perspective,’” McNeil said.
And to commemorate its 20th anniversary, that story, of the children who never knew their fathers, is being told with “Rebuilding Hope: The Children of 9/11,” now streaming on discovery +. The documentary, produced in association with People, follows four of the children – who McNeil calls “my kids,” having watched them all grow up – now on the verge of adulthood and inspiring us all by way they live their lives. “As different as they were, they all had an interesting way of enjoying the moment and not looking back too much ... It’s part of them, but it does not define them,” she explained.
Through McNeil and her team’s reporting, we watch Alexa Smagala, the daughter of Stan, a Brooklyn fireman, who was working that morning because he had switched shifts in order to take his wife to a sonogram appointment, visit her dad’s firehouse and his locker there, which remains untouched with his belongings still inside. We also follow Jamie Gartenberg Pila, named after her dad James, the man who bravely called into ABC News while trapped on the 86th floor of the North Tower, as she gets accepted into the University of Michigan, his alma mater. Viewers also see Ronald Milam Jr., a star athlete who wears the number 33 to honor his father Ronald Sr., an Army major who died in the Pentagon at 33 years old. And in the final scene of the film, we are on a journey with Gabi, who is taking the elevator up to the 102th floor of One World Trade in order to see the same view his father did in his final moments.
How did it come about that you worked on the initial piece?
I don’t remember if it was a couple of days or weeks into it, when we had the idea of, ‘What about these women who were pregnant?’ And, you know, it’s funny, when I look back, there was no database or anything. I think at that point, we’d read a story in the local press, because there was so much coverage, and we started hearing about these women who were pregnant, so we had this idea to gather them and tell that story.
So in the early part of 2002, we did gather them for a cover shoot. And it was really this incredible moment ... We were there because these women had lost their husbands in a horrible way and yet had little babies. I remember crying, but also holding these women’s babies and it was so beautiful. It was really emotional. And I guess if there was ever a description of the word ‘bittersweet,’ to see the babies and the moms and yet to know what had happened. It was this really powerful, poignant moment.
Tell us about each of the four children who are featured in the documentary.
There’s Alexa Smagala; she’s the daughter of Stan Smagala, a Brooklyn firefighter ... She’s a deep kid and you can ask her really deep questions. And she had a tough time, talked about father-daughter dances she missed. And now she’s a sophomore in college in Florida and starting to really spread her wings ... And really wants to honor her dad, and interestingly enough, she looks so much like him and I think she loves that.
Jamie Gartenberg Pila, I call her ‘the brave one,’ although all the kids are brave. But she’s a really good snowboarder, very athletic, just gets the job done, takes on any challenge. She has an older sister, Nicole, who was two when her dad, James Gartenberg, died. Nicole, of course, is more emotional about her dad’s loss because she actually was here when he died. Jamie has this fearlessness, so she wants to join the Israeli defense forces.
Ronald Milam Jr. is a kid down in San Antonio, Texas. His dad died in the Pentagon. He’s very serious about who he wants to be. He talked about creating his own legacy and wants to be a physician’s assistant ... And he talks about not really talking about it at home that much. That it was kind of like he accepted it. He is really close to his mom and looks a lot like his father. Talked a lot about how 9/11 is part of him, but doesn’t define him.
Gabi Jacobs Dick, I really can go deep with him. I asked, “How did it change your life?” And he said, “It wasn’t life changing, it was life altering.” The film has a really interesting moment where he decided that he wanted to do that on camera [take the elevators]. He said, “The terrorists’ goal is to terrorize you, to keep you from doing something,” and so for him, it was a really significant moment.
What have you learned from the experience?
What I learned is to not impose your own ideas for the story. For me, of course you think it’s sad the kids didn’t have a dad growing up. But it’s not that they’re not sad. It was different for them, it all happened before they were born ... And one thing the kids keep teaching me is that, you still have this thing where you walk on eggshells, and Alexa said, “You don’t have to walk on eggshells. It’s there anyway. It’s ok to ask me about it and ask me about my dad.”
What are some things we don’t see that happened behind the scenes?
Making sure I keep the moms happy. I always check in with them and ask, “What’d you think?” and ask was the story good for them. That’s really important to me, that we have trust and that it was also a good experience for them. Making sure I always take care of those kids. I will always take care of those kids for those moms because I really admire them so much.
How did working on this story change your life?
It definitely was life-changing. You know, it’s still hard to talk about that day, how horrible it was. And yet, I went home that night. I guess I just try to honor the people who died. I try to honor those families, and I think that’s what my work is about.
“Rebuilding Hope: The Children of 9/11” is now streaming on discovery +.