The teen-agers featured on PBS would seem to have little in common.
Ronald Milam was an athlete; Nick Gorki was a cheerleader. Luke Taylor is an ROTC cadet, planning to be a soldier; Megan Fehling plays the guitar and re-reads “Catcher in the Rye.” Dina Retik promotes togetherness; Claudia Szurkowski (shown here) says she “loves to argue.”
But “Generation 9/11” (9-11 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 31, rerunning on Sept. 10) points to a much bigger link: Each is 19; each was born after his or her father died on Sept. 11, 2001.
“Just knowing that other people like me are out there is very comforting,” Gorki told the Television Critics Association, “whereas I felt so alone for the last 19 years.”
Added Szurkowski: “It has been crazy to think that there are so many over kids like me.”
There are believed to be 105 who were born after their dads were killed in the Sept. 11 attack or the rescue efforts. We meet six of them, plus Fares Malahi, who was a 3-year-old in Yemen when his dad was killed 7,000 miles away.
They were shaped early by 9/11 – “I always felt an obligation to mature faster,” Szurkowski said – and later by the pandemic. “If you stop and think about how much the world has been through in the last 19 years, it kind of blows your mind,” said director Liz Mermin.
Still, they have the youthful ability to put tragedy in one compartment and savor life. We see Fehling with her music, Milam with football, Ritak joining her mother’s fundraising bike rides to benefit Afghan women. “Getting to do something that I love and my family loves – and getting to create a whole community of cyclists to create some good somewhere else – is really exciting,” she said.
Her dad was on a plane that crashed into the World Trade Center tower … Taylor’s and Milam’s dads were in the Pentagon … Fehling’s was a firefighter … Gorki’s and Szurkowski’s were working in the World Trade Center, as a banker and a painter, respectively ….Malahi’s worked at an adjacent hotel; he died trying to usher people to safety.
By 2, Taylor had become an orphan. (His mother died of cancer and he talks warmly of the aunt and uncle who raised him.) Gorki was almost orphaned on Sept. 11; his mom had morning sickness and left the World Trade Center, shortly before his dad died there.
Many young people, we’re told, have times when they just want to be like everyone else. But these people couldn’t escape attention … which wasn’t always a bad thing.
Taylor recalled being showered with attention – including Christmas-morning gift-opening that lasted for hours. Added Retik: “Being ‘the 9/11 family’ – especially as a very young kid – just meant getting attention, love and support …. But once my younger (half-)sister was born, when I was 6 years old, we stopped being ‘the 9/11 family.’”
For Gorki, it was impossible to fade into the background, “especially becoming the only male cheerleader.” His search for identity was complicated.
“I wanted to belong, he said, “but I wanted to belong to the people who didn’t want to belong. It’s very odd …. It took me a very long time to kind of understand that belonging is OK.”
His final burst of cheerleader excitement vanished with the pandemic. Now he’s in the quieter world of studying computers at Purdue. Others are scattered.
After trying Texas Tech, Milam is back home in San Antonio, hoping to be a physician’s assistant. Retik is at Vermont, hoping to be an educator. Taylor is at Texas Christian, planning to go into the military like his father, who wasa lieutenant colonel.
Malahi, three years older than the others, had visa trouble and wasn’t able to emigrate (from Yemen to Dearborn, Mich.) until 2016. He now has his GED, studies at home and is an event videographer.
And Czurkowski’s first obsession was cop shows. She’s now criminal justice major at Florida Southwestern; law school – boosted by her fondness for arguing – should be next. “I just feel so driven to make change, and with my connection to 9/11, I feel like that just makes it stronger.”