Children of 9/11: ‘I spent my childhood expecting him to walk through the door’

More than 3,000 children lost a parent in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Twenty years on, the sons and daughters of some of the British victims talk about loss and remembrance.

Dan Wright was 13 years old when he first tried on his father’s motorbike helmet. He shut the visor, did up the strap and stood still in the kitchen, overwhelmed, not knowing what to do with himself. It smelt exactly like his dad. The padding on the inside was softened from his father’s years of commuting between their family home in New Jersey and his office at the World Trade Center in New York. The casing was scuffed from the time his dad slipped on an oil spill, skidding across three lanes of the highway. “I will never get that helmet resprayed,” Dan says. “It’s a very surreal feeling when I put it on. It’s him. It’s just him.”

When you grow up with an absent parent, says Dan, now 24, you seek them out in other ways. His father was passionate about cars, bikes and engines. So too is Dan. He recently learnt to ride a motorbike, wearing that helmet and his dad’s jacket, which had an invoice in the pocket from the 1990s for a Honda CBR600.

“It was one of the greatest moments of my life, being on a bike, riding around like he did,” he says. “I was so at peace. All I wanted was to do more, ride longer. I was giggling. I was just very, very happy.”

He knows all of the cars and motorbikes his dad owned throughout his 30-year life — make, model, year, licence plate — and spends hours trying to track them down online, dreaming about buying them, restoring them and driving them.

His father, Neil Wright, worked as an options broker at the investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald, which occupied floors 101 to 105 in the northern tower of the World Trade Center. On the morning of September 11, 2001, four-year-old Dan was feeling unwell. Neil promised that when he got back from work they would ride in circles on his motorbike around the driveway. It was Dan’s favourite thing to do, sitting on the petrol tank between his dad’s arms. “I can remember leaning against him,” he says. “It had this really grumbly, gruff engine and I would feel like I was riding it myself.”

Later that morning, at 8.46am, American Airlines Flight 11 struck the northern tower between floors 93 and 99. Fifteen minutes into its journey from Boston to Los Angeles, al-Qaeda terrorists armed with box cutters had breached the cockpit and taken control of the plane. All 92 people on board and hundreds of office workers were killed instantly. Those who were in the building above the impact point were trapped — the stairways and fire escapes were blocked with smoke or debris. None would survive.

At 9.03am, a second plane, United Airlines Flight 175, struck the southern tower, which came crashing down 56 minutes later. The northern tower collapsed at 10.28am, 102 minutes after the first plane hit it. The death toll at the World Trade Center site was 2,753.

Every Cantor Fitzgerald employee who went into work that day — 658 people — died. It is the firm that lost the most employees — 68 per cent of its workforce. It is also the firm that lost the most British nationals, having sent large numbers of staff from its London office to New York. Of the 67 British victims of the 9/11 terror attacks, 63 worked for Cantor Fitzgerald. Neil Wright was one of them.

Dan and his younger brother, Jack, were among more than 3,000 children who lost a parent on 9/11 — the youngest, often forgotten, victims of the day that changed the world. As for anyone who loses a parent in their formative years, the grief and absence run unfathomably deep. But for the children of 9/11, the reminders are constant, the memory of their parents inextricably tied to an event that came to define an age.

“I spent a lot of my time as a child and a teenager staying up late, expecting him just to walk through the door,” Dan says. “I felt like everything had gone wrong and I was still here. Where was he? The tragedy that most people go through towards the end of their lives — a parent dying — I had right at the start of mine.”

Dan tries to avoid footage of the attacks, though often it feels as though it’s everywhere — on social media, the news, streaming sites. He once watched a 30-minute clip from a documentary, “to see how it made me feel”, he says. “And it felt more painful watching it as an adult. You look at it and you see — plane hits tower, tower goes up in smoke, bursts into flames, tower collapses. As a child I couldn’t comprehend all those people who died, people jumping because they didn’t want to burn to death, the people below, this shower of glass and steel and fire falling on them from so high in the sky. As an adult you can see all those individual things happening and the pain that the event caused.”

On the morning of the attacks his father had left his motorbike at home and driven his car — a Subaru WRX, Dan recalls — on to the ferry and into the city, leaving it “in a car park basically at the front door of the towers”. Dan was watching Barney & Friends on television when a news report announced that a plane had struck one of the towers. “I knew my dad worked in that office, so I could connect what was happening,” he says. As he watched the attacks unfold, it felt as though he aged ten years. “It was a really dark time,” he says. “I had to look after my brother, who was three, he was a baby, he didn’t know what was going on, he was too young to understand. I remember being with him and holding him, just being very sad.”

Within minutes of the strike the Cantor Fitzgerald computer screens went blank. “I think a plane just hit us,” one employee said on a conference call with their Los Angeles office. “Somebody’s got to help us,” another shouted. “We can’t get out … The place is filling with smoke.” The line went dead.

In the London office, brokers started frantically calling their New York colleagues. “They knew a plane had gone in below them, but there was confusion and they were asking us for clarity,” managing director Shaun Lynn later told the Evening Standard. “Our London brokers described the smoke billowing from the northern tower they were seeing on TV. There was a deathly silence on the trading floor. I had close friends there, we all did. We were the kind of firm where people knew each other well.”

Some employees inside the tower asked their London colleagues over the phone to pass on messages to their families. “Talk became difficult,” said Philip Norton, who was working in the London office, “because cabling was melting. They were becoming distraught.” Others in the northern tower managed to smash the windows of the building, a hundred floors up — some gasped for air, desperate to escape the smoke; others jumped.

There were “hundreds of [funerals], day after day, for months”, said Howard Lutnick, then as now the CEO and chairman of Cantor Fitzgerald.

Two months after the attacks Dan and Jack Wright flew back to the UK with their mother to be with their family and friends in Bexley, southeast London. “I spent a lot of my childhood looking after my brother and my mum,” Dan says. “It was like the whole world collapsed around me and it felt like it was just me holding it all up. This strain and this pain of trying to keep everything together. I still feel it.

“I have a girlfriend and I love her to pieces, and I’ve got a group of people who in a heartbeat would be there to help me if I’m ever struggling, but I still feel like I’m alone in this. I feel like it’s just me, like I’m locked in a box. It’s so hard …” he trails off. “I’m so used to being sad.”

As a teenager he retreated from his peers and found school difficult. “I spent a lot of time by myself,” he says. “There’s a lot of people who struggle with depression and anxiety and thoughts that nobody should really think about. I’m very conscious that I don’t want to take up people’s time when they are struggling with their own things, too. My dad died in one of the most horrific terror attacks in the world. But I always felt like somebody else was having it worse than me. Which is a problem that I have.” Have things improved as he’s got older? “Um, not really. Since I’ve been able to drive, yes.”

Now, when he feels sad or stressed, Dan goes for drives in his car, late at night, music blaring. “I go when the roads are empty, through central London — Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, Westminster,” he says. One night, around 3am, he got an urge to put his foot down over Westminster Bridge. He had recently souped up his exhaust pipe, so it “sounded good”.

“I dropped into first gear, low as I could, foot to the floor and I just sent it, getting it up through the gears,” he says. “And every time I shifted and accelerated, the exhaust pipe backfired — this big bang and a blue flame comes out the back of the car. And I’m just steaming over this bridge as fast as I could, windows down, jazz music on full volume. When I drive I get this feeling — a kind of peace and comfort and reassurance. It’s like my dad is there, I guess. It is when I feel closest to him.”

His father was born in Tilbury, Essex. In his early twenties he worked for Barclays in the City of London, meeting his future wife, Trudi Freeman, at a bar after work. At 24 he bought his first car, a Renault 5 Turbo with a number plate ending UKI, nicknamed “Ucki”. Dan doesn’t know whether it’s still on the road, but he is constantly on the lookout for it, hoping he spots an advert online or sees it when he’s driving. He would buy it “in a heartbeat”.

Neil was offered a job at Cantor Fitzgerald and moved to New York in 1996. Dan was born that year. “We had this apartment in Jersey City, right on the riverfront, looking straight into New York. My mum’s got a couple of pictures of me in one of those baby frames that you bounce around in with the twin towers in the background.” They soon moved to a “picturesque” house in the countryside, and his brother, Jack, was born in 1998.

Neil took Dan to a motorbike dealer for his fourth birthday, the last birthday they would spend together. He bought him an all-in-one suit and a miniature 50cc blue dirt bike, which he drove around the garden. “I felt like a hero on that birthday,” he says. “Unfortunately for my brother, he doesn’t really remember our dad. I have memories of us playing together and I wish that Jack could have those.”

Dan visits New York every few years. “I try to go to everywhere he’s been, areas he visited. I’m just trying to trace his footsteps. I haven’t been up the Freedom Tower [renamed One World Trade Center, rebuilt at the site of the twin towers] yet, which I want to do. I would like to go up there to the viewing deck, which is at the height of the tallest bit of the twin towers, to see New York from that height. I think it would be maybe … humbling.”

Howard Lutnick was not in the office onthe morning of the attacks — he had been taking his son to kindergarten. His brother, Gary, the managing director of Cantor Fitzgerald, was, though, and died. Within a week, the company was able to bring its trading markets back online. It also made a pledge to distribute 25 per cent of the firm’s profits for the next five years to the families of the 658 employees who died.

The money from legal and insurance payouts from Neil Wright’s death have paid for Dan’s school fees, got him through university and helped him out with his first house. “I’ll be forever grateful for all those things,” he says. “But if I had to give it all up just to have him — I’d do it in a heartbeat.”

The children of the British victims of 9/11 will always be caught in a strange limbo, somewhere between being British and American. Robin Larkey, who died aged 48 in the attacks, was originally from east London. His first two sons, Nick and Oliver, were born in Surrey; the third, William, was born in the US after Robin and his wife, Tracy, moved there for his job at Cantor Fitzgerald in 1992.

A Chelsea supporter and Rolling Stones fan, Robin amused and baffled his American co-workers with Cockney rhyming slang. His eldest son, Nick, who was 13 when his father died, is now 33. He remembers his dad as a driven man, always on the sidelines of his soccer games, cheering him on. “Growing up without him, we kept the same traditions. On Saturday we would have an English breakfast before watching Chelsea play and on Sunday my mom would cook a big English roast with her signature Yorkshire puddings.”

The family remained in the US after 9/11. Their mother, Tracy, recently moved from New Jersey to South Carolina and the family planted a palm tree in the front garden, to “christen a new chapter of life in the South”. Nick says the 9/11 Memorial in New York, where the towers used to stand, can be “overwhelming”, “so many years ago we decided we prefer going to the Queen Elizabeth II Garden in Lower Manhattan, as a way to remember our dad.” The garden commemorates the 67 British victims and all members of the Commonwealth who died in the attacks. It is peaceful there, says Nick, and makes him feel close to his dad and his family in England.

The three Gilligan siblings speak with different accents, according to their age. The eldest, Ashley, 37, sounds like she is from the US; Ainsley, 30, a bit less so; and Dherran, 28, barely at all. Their parents, originally from Liverpool, emigrated in 1981 to Connecticut, where the children were born. Like Neil Wright and Robin Larkey, their father, Ron Gilligan, worked for Cantor Fitzgerald. He, too, went into the office on the morning of September 11, 2001.

“That day was weird, it just felt off,” says Ainsley when we meet in an American-style diner in Chester, in northwest England, where she lives now. “I was ten years old at the time. I remember my older sister came to pick me up from school and I kept asking, ‘What’s happened?’ We got through the door at home and I saw it all unfold on the TV. I knew there and then he wasn’t coming back.” It was horrifying to watch the building burn, she says. “I just thought, oh boy, life is never going to be the same again.”

Her brother, Dherran, eight years old at the time, was off sick from school that day. “Mum got a phone call, came into the living room, put the telly on and the camera panned out to see the fire,” he says, sitting next to his sister. He lives in Stoke, where he is a secondary school teacher. “I could see that it was the tower but I didn’t think about the long term. You don’t really get the permanence of the changes when you’re a child.” It wasn’t until the following day that Dherran realised his father had died.

“The next day one of my friends said something about the towers being gone and I was, like, ‘What?’ And he said, they’re not there any more. And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ ” Was that the moment he realised? “Yeah. Mum says that I displayed a lot of signs of having PTSD. I generally have a good memory, but I don’t really have a memory of the couple of years after it happened.”

School in America was difficult, with children coming up to them in the canteen, asking about the attacks and what had happened to their dad. “We were exposed to it constantly,” Dherran says. In 2003 their mum decided to give them a “fresh start” and some “physical distance”, moving them to the UK. Their eldest sister, Ashley, was about to start college in America, so she stayed and has remained there since.

Life in Britain was a “culture shock”, says Ainsley. They were the token American kids, asked to say words like “corndog” in the playground. “Life feels like it’s been split into two phases,” Dherran says. “Before and after [the attacks], just because of how different our lives are now. Before, we lived 3,000 miles away and I sounded completely different to how I do now.”

Culturally, he feels split too. “I follow the [British] football intensely for half the year and then I notice that baseball’s just started, and then I’m a Yankees fan.”

Their parents, Ron and Liz, met when they were working at Merseyside county council. “Both came from deprived backgrounds,” Dherran says. “My father had six brothers and sisters, they lived in Kirkby, in Liverpool. My mum’s from Speke and there were only three of them, but it was a tough upbringing.” Ron retrained in IT in the 1980s and was offered a job in New York. Initially, he “bottled it”, says Ainsley, and turned down the offer. “He started having doubts. He didn’t want to go.” When he got home his wife, Liz, “bollocked him”, says Dherran. “She said, ‘No, this is our chance to make a life for ourselves, get out of Liverpool, have this adventure. We’re going to do it.’ Our mum is very compassionate, very loving, but very, very tough.”

Their dad loved the office in New York. “He was a smoker and he got to have his fag breaks 1,300 feet in the air on top of the World Trade Center,” Dherran says. “In New York, with that view — think how he must have felt. ‘I’ve made it.'”

He had the “grit, resilience, optimism and cheekiness that comes out of those working-class cities”, Ainsley says. “That comes from adversity.” As a Scouser working in London, Ron had met prejudice. But in New York, as a Brit, he could flourish. “He had a very prosaic way of speaking and it did wonders for him,” Dherran says.

The Gilligans have had to become hardened to what happened. September 11 is one of the most publicly mourned tragedies of the past century. I wonder if they are ever able to mourn privately.

In 2011, on the tenth anniversary of the attacks, they went to a ceremony at Ground Zero, where the towers used to stand. It felt like a “circus”, Dherran says. While the families were trying to mourn, there were political activists with placards, chanting. “We were kettled into this area and this channel opened up so helicopters could land with politicians or dignitaries. They’d go straight in, get their photo and leave. I thought, this is a joke. This makes me feel terrible. Those memorials feel like PR events. That’s when I understood why Mum kept us away. Because what everyone is looking for is some sense of closure, an antidote to what happened. Unfortunately, those things don’t exist. You feel like you have to go and you shouldn’t; you should just grieve in the way that you want.”

When they tell people their father died in the 9/11 attacks, people often have dramatic reactions. They can’t believe it. “Their reactions make me think, is there something wrong with me?” Ainsley says. “Should I be messed up in some way because it was so violent? I get what happened to our dad was extremely traumatic but I don’t think we feel much different to other people who have lost a parent. You still have a void where your father once was.”

Ron was a fantastic dad, they tell me: supportive, enthusiastic, inquisitive, coming to baseball games straight after work and taking them to bookshops in the people-carrier at the weekends. “To have had the father that we had for eight years, as well as the mum that we’ve had,” Dherran says, “we’re incredibly lucky. A lot luckier than most people actually are. Everyone says this about someone who’s died, it’s such a cliché, but our father really was a great man.”

This year they will spend the anniversary as a family in Liverpool, remembering their father in the city of his birth. “We were kids then and we’re adults now,” Ainsley says. “So I guess the 20-year anniversary will really make me reflect on what we’ve gone through since.”

“When you are in the fog of grief, you just want to feel OK again,” Dherran says. “But then again you don’t want to shake that feeling off because, by getting rid of it, it’s as if you are…”

“…letting a piece of them go,” Ainsley continues. “I’d rather feel the same way about it for ever: I miss my dad, I’m sad about what happened, but I’m grateful for him being the father that he was and having the family that I have.”

Written by: Megan Agnew
© The Times of London

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