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"Losing my dad was life altering, not life changing," Gabriel Jacobs Dick tells PEOPLE. "It altered my path from day one. It was like the butterfly effect — the way that every event leads into the next. A chain reaction."
Gabi's dad, sales executive Ariel Jacobs, attended a meeting at the famed New York City restaurant Windows on the World in the North Tower of the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. His life ended in the terrorist attacks just five days before what would have been his 30th birthday, and six days before his widow Jenna gave birth to their son, Gabi.
Now 19 and a junior at SUNY Purchase College, Gabi only recently saw videos of his father.
"It was surreal. Something about being 19 and hearing my dad's voice for the first time — that pushed an emotional button I didn't know I had," he says. "My whole life, it was up to my imagination to turn him into a person. There was nothing to go off of except photos. Seeing him on film with his friends and traveling to Buenos Aires, I was like, 'This is a real person. He's right in front of me.' "
Gabi explores his loss in the new documentary Rebuilding Hope: The Children of 9/11, streaming now on discovery+. For about two decades, PEOPLE has documented the lives of children who were not yet born when their father's died on 9/11. Now the new film — produced by Talos Films in association with PEOPLE and directed by Ellen Goosenberg Kent — shares the teenagers' perspectives as the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches.
Discovery+ Gabriel Jacobs Dick taking an elevator ride at the World Trade Center in Rebuilding Hope: The Children of 9/11
For much of his life, Gabi had a fear of airplanes, elevators and tall buildings stemming from his father's death.
"I always avoided elevators and flew only when I had to," he says. "That's where my dad was right before."
This past summer, at his local skate park in Brooklyn, Gabi looked out at the Manhattan skyline and thought about the hold those fears had on him.
"I thought, 'I can do that — go up the elevator. And if I can do that, hopefully I have nothing to be afraid of — at least in regards to elevators,' " he says. "The point of terrorism is to instill fear in the minds of your victims. So in a sense, if you're terrorized, they're successful."
Last month, he gave it a try.
"I'm going up there — of course it's going to happen to me," he remembers thinking at the bottom of the elevator as he awaited the 102-floor ride to the One World Observatory at the World Trade Center.
"In a sense, I thought I was cursed," Gabi explains. "As soon as I go up there, there's a risk."
Though Gabi worried "there was no coming down from that tower — or that spot," he discovers "that's not the case" in the Rebuilding Hope clip above.
Victoria Stevens Gabi Jacobs Dick
"Being up there, I felt a crazy release of tension, like everything was going to be okay; I'm alive and I don't have to think like that anymore," he says. "When I looked out over the city, I thought, 'This was the last view my dad had — it's not the last view I will have.' "
Reflecting on his connection with his father, Gabi tells PEOPLE, "The only times I feel connected to him in a sort of magical sense is when I do something goofy and my mom looks at me in the way she does when I do something he would have done. That's when I think there's something here that can't be explained."
But there was one time.
"I only asked him to help me once," recalls Gabi. "When I was 14, my brother Brenner and I had each caught a fish but not my second brother Wesley, and I said, 'Dad, if you're out here, send Wesley a fish,' and then boom, the line starts going. I thought, 'Wow, did that just work?' I haven't tried it again. I didn't want to push my luck."
Watch the full episode of People Cover Story: The Children of 9/11 on PeopleTV.com or on the PeopleTV app.
Gabi's mom, Jenna Jacobs McPartland, now faces the 20th anniversary of the tragedy that took her late husband's life.
"For any parent, watching their kids turn 20 and become an adult is an unreal experience — and to put that into the context of 9/11 and not having his father all these 20 years makes it all the more unreal," says Jacobs McPartland, who runs The Stand Vegan Cafe in Westport, Connecticut.
RELATED VIDEO: 4 Teens Who Were Not Yet Born When Their Dads Died on 9/11 Reveal Their Struggles and Triumphs
But there are many bright spots, says McPartland, who has since remarried and has a blended family of six kids: "One of the most fun things in my life is to see him grow up and be his mom. He turned out to be such a fantastic young man who's interesting, opinionated, evolving and funny."
"I think I'm the most proud that he is a man of self-reflection and convictions and he's kind," she continues. "I have wanted him to grow up, be his own person and make his own decisions on how to handle his dad's memory and the legacy of 9/11, and I'm happy he's doing that. And I'm proud of him for assuring that while 9/11 is a part of who he is today, it's not his single identity. Gabi lives in the present, and that's great for him."
As Gabi sees it, "I can't imagine my dad would want me to think about it all the time or ask myself crazy what-if questions. There's no answer. If I died I wouldn't want my kid to think about it all the time."
"Now I honor him by being alive, being happy and living a great life," he adds. "My 9/11 story ends with, 'I'm okay. I'm 19. My story is still evolving.' "
For more on the children of 9/11, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now, or subscribe here. And don't miss Rebuilding Hope: The Children of 9/11, streaming exclusively on discovery+ beginning Sept. 7.