They are the final gifts their fathers left behind.
Known as the Children of 9/11, they were the 100 or so babies born after their fathers died on September 11, 2001, in the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history. PEOPLE first introduced them in a cover story just a few months after 9/11 and then again 10 years later in 2011.
Now, 17 years after 9/11, PEOPLE is once again catching up with several of those kids – now teenagers – and their families in a new special Children of 9/11, 15 Years Later on the PEOPLE/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN).
“These children are what comes after 9/11,” says Jenna Jacobs, whose son Gabriel was born six days after the death of his father Ariel. “They are the joy, the salve, the ointment. They’re the love.”
• Lauren McIntyre‘s father, Port Authority Police Officer Donald McIntyre, died after running into the South Tower to save others. Lauren – who is now 16 and was born less than three months after 9/11 – and her two older siblings, Caitlyn, 22, and Donald Jr., 20, became like surrogate children to their father’s surviving fellow officers, and Lauren is comforted by his final act of bravery.
“I could only imagine how much courage someone could have to go into a situation like that,” says Lauren, who appeared on PEOPLE’s 2011 cover wearing a locket with her father’s photo. (She still wears his badge number on a necklace.) “It’s beyond amazing.”
• Ronald Milam, Jr., 16, lost his dad Ronald at the Pentagon while his mother, Jacqueline, was five months pregnant with him. (She was working on the other side of the building during the attack.) A high school basketball player, today Ronald Jr. wears the number 33 on his jersey, the age his father was when he died.
“I feel like my dad is watching me,” he says. “Every move I make, he’s here.”
• Gabriel Dick, 16, and his mother Jenna release balloons with notes attached to Ariel, who died while attending a conference at the World Trade Center, on the anniversary of 9/11 each year.
“Some people believe in God or the greater power,” says Gabriel. “I believe that the ones close to you that we’ve lost are there to help you, watching every step you take.”
• Jamie Pila, who was born six months after her dad James died on the 86th floor of the North Tower, is “the special gift he left for us,” says her mom Jill.
“My mom says I’m brave like [my dad],” says Jamie, 16. “When I do well on something or have a big moment, I wish he was here with me.”
• Robyn Higley, 16, who was born seven weeks after her father Robert died, says the loss has given her a different perspective from her peers. “I’ve always been aware of the world,” she says. “The world should be a place where it’s okay to be who you are, and to love whom you love and believe what you believe. Underneath, what we’re made up of is the same.”
• Allison Lee – whose father Dan was on Flight 11, traveling to be home for his daughter’s imminent birth – has learned that her sadness is also coupled with happiness about the joy her dad brought others. “There’s always an empty spot,” says Allison, who will turn 17 on September 13. “But on September 11, we celebrate my dad’s life.”