The sight and sound of a Boeing 757 passenger jet crashing into the north tower of the World Trade Center -- and the stunned reactions of people watching from the streets below -- remain a defining moment of the 9/11 attacks.
But that image and other horrific footage of 11 September continue to haunt people, four years after the terrorists struck. Especially kids.
“We don’t want children to be defined by September. You know, ‘I am John and my father died on 11 September,’” says Donna Gaffney, a New York mental health professional. Gaffney has helped pioneer ways to help children personally affected by 9/11 to overcome their tragedy.
“We want children to grow up to be resilient, to grow to be the best that they can be and happy and have solid relationships with people -- and have gone through this experience. And we know that’s entirely possibly because children are so incredibly resilient,” Gaffney says.
Many children who lived through the attacks -- or whose parents, relatives, or friends were killed in them -- continue to suffer from their memories of that fateful day.
A groundbreaking study by the U.S. Board of Education in 2002 found in the months after the attacks, that tens of thousands of children across the New York area suffered from chronic nightmares, fear of public places, severe anxiety, and other psychological problems.
While many of those problems have subsided, Gaffney says it’s still unclear what long-term psychological consequences the attacks might have on kids. Especially, she says, kids who lost loved ones.
Such children number about 3,000. Gaffney says the fact that their tragedy has become so public makes it doubly difficult to deal with. “You know, families might get together very quietly and talk about [a tragedy]," she says. "But in this case, it’s always going to be remembered in a very open and very public way.”
As the United States gets set to mark the fourth anniversary of 9/11 on Sunday, U.S. homes will again be flooded with horrific television footage -- such as one witness’s account of watching the tragedy unfold in the north tower of the WTC: “There are people jumping out of windows. I've seen at least 13 or 14 people jumping out of windows. It is horrific. I can't believe this is happening.”
Minutes later that morning, the first tower collapsed -- an image that is set to be shown over and over again on American television this weekend.
For Gaffney, these images, and their repetition in the media, represent a big problem in helping kids cope with their 9/11 experiences. “I work with some children in New York City who were in a school very close to Ground Zero and fortunately, no one in the school was hurt, but they all had to evacuate and walk up the West Side Highway," she says. "It was very difficult for them, at the time, but they were all together. So some of them smelling smoke later on might have a reaction to the smell of smoke or even seeing a clear blue day -- since the weather was so spectacular on that day, in 2001.”
Or the sight of a ladder. Gaffney explains that in using play therapy, one little boy under her care would consistently cling to a toy ladder that was part of a doll’s house. Finally, she and the boy’s mom discovered why.
“She told me that in her explaining to him and talking about what happened on 11 September, the reason why his father couldn’t escape was because there weren’t ladders in the fire trucks tall enough. So in his mind, in his very young mind, he was always going to be prepared -- he had the ladder,” Gaffney says.
Gaffney and others have helped lead a number of programs for kids affected by 9/11. They involve counseling, camps, education for parents, and innovative therapies involving art, playing, music, and reading:
In April, the American Red Cross announced that disaster relief agencies had granted nearly $9 million to continue funding such programs in the New York area -- just another sign that four years on, some kids are still struggling to cope with 9/11.
Part 2: Four Years After 9/11, A Father Tries To Keep Son’s Memory Alive
Part 3: Four Years After 9/11, New York Struggles With How To Rebuild Skyline