'Losing My Dad on 9/11 Made Me a Stronger, Braver Person,' Says Teen Who Wants to Join Israeli Army

·5 min read
'Losing My Dad on 9/11 Made Me a Stronger, Braver Person,' Says Teen Who Wants to Join Israeli Army

Jamie Gartenberg Pila never knew her father, but she's continuing to honor his legacy every day.

Born after her dad, James Gartenberg, was killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Jamie, 19, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue that she has learned a lot from his life — and his death.

"Death is a tough concept. I don't think anyone understands it — I don't. But I think it all just goes back, and maybe it's a cliché, to living my life to the fullest," she says.

"Over the past ten or so years, with terrorism and school shootings, when I hear about people losing someone close to them, I think about my dad and my heart breaks," she continues. "I can relate. Knowing that my dad passed away in his thirties makes me realize you can't take life for granted."

James was working as a commercial real estate broker when he was killed on Sept. 11, 2001. That day, James had gone to work early to clean out his office before a move uptown. While trapped inside the 86th floor of the North Tower after the first plane hit, he spoke to WABC to share what he was witnessing as the towers burned.

"If I'm on the air, I want to tell anybody that has a family member that may be in the building that the situation is under control for the moment and the danger has not increased," he told the station. "So please, all family members take it easy."

Six months later, his widow, Jill Gartenberg Pila, welcomed their daughter Jamie.

children of 9/11
children of 9/11

Victoria Stevens Jamie Gartenberg Pila

RELATED: The Children of 9/11 Are Honoring the Dads They Never Knew: 'I'm the Last Thing He Left Behind'

For nearly two decades, PEOPLE has documented Jamie's journey, as well as many other children of 9/11, including Gabi Jacobs Dick, Alexa Smagala, and Ronald Milam Jr., who are all featured in this week's issue.

"My mom got remarried when I was two, so I've never really felt that missing piece because I have my dad now, and my biological dad," says Jamie, who was raised alongside her older sister, Nicole, in a blended family.

"We tell our story to help people understand what happened 20 years ago," says Jamie. "I wasn't even born, so I think my generation and the next can connect more if people like me and the other kids share our [stories]."

"Losing my biological dad at a young age taught me to do everything you can," she continues. "Help people. Always do the right thing and be brave."

jamie pila
jamie pila

Courtesy Pila Family Jamie Gartenberg Pila and her mom Jill Gartenberg Pila

For more on the children of 9/11, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here. And don't miss Rebuilding Hope: The Children of 9/11, streaming exclusively on discovery+ beginning Sept. 7.

Her mom, Jill, 54, is amazed by her daughter's inner strength. "When she sets her mind to do something, she achieves it," she says.

"She's independent, courageous and she perseveres," she adds. "And she's a free spirit."

"I'm lucky to have Jamie as a sister — and as my dad's daughter," says her older sister Nicole Gartenberg Pila, who recently graduated from University of Michigan, her father's beloved alma mater. "We see him in each other and for me to have a connection to him through her is a gift."

"Yes, we are strong because we lost our biological dad and we've grown through experiencing that," adds Nicole, "but I also think our mom is part of that. We saw how strong she had to be."

A talented snowboarder, Jamie loves adventure. "I don't necessarily consider myself fearless, but I know other people do," she says. "I like adrenaline. I like pushing the limits."

She recalls how she learned to do a backflip on her snowboard. "One day I thought, 'It's now or never.' I just closed my eyes, took off, and was flying through the air," she shares. "It showed me I was the only person holding myself back. Anything that I'm scared to do, I think of that moment."

children of 9/11 in 2011
children of 9/11 in 2011

Nigel Parry/The Licensing Project Jamie Gartenberg Pila in 2011

RELATED: Jamie Gartenberg Pila, Born Six Months After Her Dad Died on 9/11: 'Even on the Hard Days, I Feel Like He Is with Me'

Now, at 19, Jamie is planning to join the Israeli Defense Forces.

"I was planning on going to the University of Colorado, but I took a gap year due to COVID and lived in Israel. I'm hoping to join the Israel Defense Forces there," she says. "In the Israel Defense Forces, even at 18, you can be a major part of what makes the country function and keeps people safe as they work toward a greater goal of creating peace. That's something that I felt like I needed to be a part of."

Says Jill of her daughter: "I'm proud of her independence and her courage."

The teen and her sister Nicole will also be featured in a new documentary, Rebuilding Hope: The Children of 9/11, streaming on discovery+ beginning Sept. 7. The documentary follows Jamie, Gabi, Alexa, and Ronald Jr. as they reflect on life, their intense bonds with their mothers, and their own dreams for the future.

9/11 children
9/11 children

Victoria Stevens (L-R) Jamie Gartenberg Pila, Gabi Jacobs-Dick, Alexa Smagala and Ronald Milam Jr.

With the 20th anniversary of her dad's death approaching, Jamie is reminding others of how precious life truly is.

"I think we all start planning our lives, probably decades in advance, and that worked out for no one, especially with COVID," she says. "I don't see a point in planning so far ahead."

"I want to travel, go to New Zealand. I want to go skydiving, bungee jumping. I don't want anyone feeling bad for me," adds Jamie. "If anything, losing my dad made me a stronger and braver person."

Rebuilding Hope: The Children of 9/11 — which is executive produced by Julian P. Hobbs and Elli Hakami for Talos Films and Liz McNeil, Cynthia Sanz, and Dan Wakeford for PEOPLE — debuts on Tuesday, Sept. 7, streaming exclusively on discovery+.

Watch the full episode of People Cover Story: The Children of 9/11 on PeopleTV.com or on the PeopleTV app.