Throughout high school in Montreal, Garrett Doyle had a clear-headed goal: Become a U.S. Navy SEAL.
Garrett was just 15 months old when terrorists flew two jets into New York City’s World Trade Center towers in 2001. His 39-year-old stockbroker father, Frank, worked in one of the towers and didn’t survive. Years later, Garrett, who has dual U.S.-Canadian citizenship, reckoned that by joining the elite military force, he could help police the world against evil and keep his surviving family members safe.
This was more than a teenage pipe dream. Garrett threw himself into a rigorous physical-training regimen that lasted years. He pumped weights, ran 10 kilometres every other day, and pushed his endurance in the swimming pool.
“I had researched what essentially Navy SEAL training entailed and tried to prepare myself anyway I could,” recalls Garrett, now 21.
“I was ready to enlist.”
But his mother, Kimmy Chedel, and sister, Zoe, implored him to reconsider and he eventually backed down. Garrett says he came to a realization: If his family ended up losing him too, what was the point?
The Doyle siblings are part of a special club of more than 3,000 members — children who lost a parent on 9/11. Some were just infants and toddlers at the time; others were on the cusp of adulthood.
Two decades later, the children of 9/11, now in their 20s and 30s, have emerged from the shadow of that day of infamy — their lives marked by tumult, conflicted feelings and resounding resilience.
Some have taken up careers as firefighters — just like their fathers who were killed in the line of duty. Others have sought to distance themselves from the tragedy, not wishing their lives to be defined by it.
One thing they’ve all had to navigate is how to mark Sept. 11 anniversaries — and honour the memory of their deceased parent amid the glare of national and international media coverage.
“I can’t imagine too many 9/11 kids, now young adults, who would say the footage and the media coverage and all the hullabaloo around it doesn’t bother them,” said Sallie Lynch, senior program and development consultant with Tuesday’s Children, a U.S.-based non-profit formed in the aftermath of 9/11 that provides support to people affected by terrorism and mass violence.
For some children of 9/11, the most difficult moments didn’t come until 10 or 15 years later, she said.
“You don’t just get over grief, you live with it.”
Even though Frank was born in Detroit, he was listed among the 24 Canadian victims of 9/11 because of his family’s close ties to Canada — his wife, Kimmy, is from Quebec and his parents were from the Ottawa Valley.
On 9/11, the family lived in Englewood, N.J. Frank was the head of equity trading at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods. He worked in the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
After 20 years, Kimmy is still able to recall how that morning unfolded with remarkable clarity.
After the first plane hit the North Tower, she called him.
“I said, ‘Frank I’m watching the news. It’s a commercial airplane, it’s filled with fuel … Get out of there.’”
Frank was the head of his trading desk and had about 30 employees under him.
“He’s like, ‘I can’t just leave. I can’t just get in the elevator and leave.’ While I was talking to him the speaker system came on that said, ‘(The South Tower) is secure, everyone is to remain in their offices.’ He said, ‘Did you hear that?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘But Frank, just go down, get a coffee, get a muffin. If it’s safe you can go back up again.’ He told me in that call to call his mom and call my mom and tell them he’s OK. So, I hung up the phone.”
She left a voicemail for Frank’s mother in Michigan. Then she called her mother in Montreal and told her everything was fine. That’s when a friend rang her.
“She’s like, ‘Frank’s building was just hit.’ I’m like, ‘What?’ … I tried calling him and the lines were all busy. He called me back at 9:22. He said, ‘Kimmy, you need to listen carefully.
‘I’ve gone up to the rooftop, and the rooftop doors are locked. I’m on the 87th floor. It’s getting difficult to breathe.’ I could hear a lot of people talking. I could hear coughing. I heard them break the glass where they have the fire extinguisher. He says, ‘I know you know this, but promise me you tell Zoe and Garrett everyday for the rest of their lives how much their papa loves them.’”
In the moment, it didn’t dawn on Kimmy he was saying goodbye. They were supposed to go up to Canada in a few days to do a duathlon together.
“I wasn’t thinking this was our final call.”
His final words to her were: “I love you, Sweetie. But you need to make that call. We need your help.”
So, she hung up and dialed 9-1-1.
About a half-hour later, the South Tower collapsed.
Within a few months, Kimmy packed up and moved the kids to the family cottage in Quebec.
“I just wanted to be away from New York City,” she said. “I found it really hard. Part of me was sad I wasn’t healing with the other widows. But I also realized within a couple of months it was healthier for me to be up here with the kids removed, with family, and to surround them with positivity and not focus on the horror of that day.”
She enrolled herself and her two kids in counselling. Her therapist stressed the importance of living in the present.
“She said, ‘Pick two days of the year to honour your husband. The other 363 days, I want you to live in the present,’” Kimmy recalled.
“That was kind of my marching orders.”
In recognition of Frank’s love for athletics, family and friends started a tradition of gathering in Tenafly, N.J., each May to participate in an annual road race — one that Frank and Kimmy had participated in in May 2001. Since the 9/11 Memorial and Museum opened a decade ago in Lower Manhattan, participants have also gathered there before the race to pay their respects.
Family and friends also started an annual tradition of participating in a triathlon in August in Sainte-Agathe, Que., which Frank had taken part in three weeks before 9/11. (The event was discontinued in 2015).
“I just wanted to have a way to have Frank’s and my friends gather around myself and my children as they grew up to kind of have a connection to their dad,” Kimmy said.
“I thought it would be a good way to have this team that surrounds Zoe and Garrett and talks to them as they’re growing up about their dad and (share) stories about their dad.”
Zoe, 22, said it helped give her a sense of who her father was.
“I know a lot of people struggle with — they feel like they don’t even know the parent they lost. I think that’s where a lot of the anger comes from for some families. But for us I feel like it connected us to him and I think it’s helped us a lot.”
Zoe added that she and Garrett both ended up playing hockey, which was their father’s sport.
“It made me feel closer to him.”
That’s not to say there weren’t challenges along the way.
Kimmy has a painting that Garrett did in art class in elementary school. It shows two towers engulfed in flames.
“No one had asked him to paint the towers. But he’s got this crazy image of the two towers on fire. I think he was in Grade 2 or 3.”
Another time, he wrote a poem that included a reference to Osama bin Laden.
“The teachers would call me and tell me what Garrett was doing. I said, ‘That’s OK. We have to talk about this in our family. It’s not like a taboo subject’… I had to explain to the school I was comfortable that he was expressing himself through art and through literature.”
Kimmy said she was a bit annoyed other students in the school were kept in the dark about 9/11.
“Someone would say something to Zoe about her daddy and she would say he was killed in the World Trade Center. And the teachers would say, ‘Well, kids in Zoe’s class don’t necessarily know because their parents don’t want to tell them.’ I said, ‘Yes, but you know I obviously have to tell my children and my children know and I can’t tell them that … they can’t talk about what happened to their father.’ So I would say it was a little bit more challenging for us being in Canada because very few parents had chosen to tell their kids when my kids were trying to process this.”
Around the time Garrett started high school, he resolved to join the Navy SEALs, the military force that carries out reconnaissance missions and direct assaults on enemy targets.
“I saw the Navy SEALs as the people who took out bin Laden,” Garrett said. “In my own head, I thought that if I could become that then I could be the person who goes over and takes out the bad guys and keeps my family safe.”
From age 13 to 18, he stuck to a strict training schedule.
“Weightlifting, cardio. I was running 10K every second day. I was very serious about it. I was doing pool training to get ready for it.”
Garrett said he doesn’t believe his goal was driven by a desire to avenge his father’s death. He just saw it as “one way of doing good in the world.”
His mother isn’t so sure.
“I was worried that part of it was out of anger,” she said. “I don’t want to say it too bluntly, but ‘kill the motherf—s’ who took his dad. I remember he would say things every once and a while like, ‘I want to go get them.’”
To her relief, Garrett eventually decided to channel his energy into other pursuits.
“They didn’t want to lose me, too, and I feel like that’s a pretty reasonable thing,” he said.
Instead of going off and saving the world, there was a chance of, “I train and I go off and they end up losing another family member. They veered me off of that path.”
Garrett ended up joining his sister at Elon University in North Carolina studying international relations. The siblings said the courses they’ve taken have provided them with a deeper understanding of the history and context for the world’s conflicts.
“I took a course this past semester before graduating in terrorism and world order. We both took classes in peace and conflict studies,” Zoe said. “I feel we’re both globally minded.”
That global mindedness has extended into the way the family honours Frank. In 2017, the family created a Canadian non-profit, Team Frank Africa, with the aim of building preschools in rural parts of South Africa.
In South Africa, there’s no funding for preschool education in remote parts of the country, Zoe said. But if someone comes in and funds construction that meets government standards, then the government has to commit to funding the school’s operations.
To date, they’ve built four in Mpumalanga province.
“We’ve gone to see preschool graduations, restock schools during COVID with a lot more food, trying to do community-based projects that benefit them and their real-time needs,” Garrett said.
It’s the type of work he would like to continue to do after graduation.
“My hope is that by learning about different countries, their histories and what unique problems are prevalent, I can hope to better assist through a non-profit or some other group doing good.”
The ups and downs and moments of vulnerability and resilience demonstrated by the Doyle children are not dissimilar to what experts have seen in other 9/11 children they’ve observed.
Phyllis Cohen, a New York psychologist, was co-director of a clinical research project that followed three-dozen women who were pregnant and widowed on 9/11 over many years.
During videotaped interactions between the mothers and their infants, the researchers noticed how the babies were aware of their mother’s grief and worked hard to engage them.
“They searched for the mother’s face and looked to reach her so she would become enlivened,” she said.
While the infants were clearly tuned in to their mothers’ emotional states, they didn’t feel the loss themselves until they got a bit older, she said.
How did they know this? By observing how the children played.
When the children were between the ages of three and eight, the researchers noticed striking differences between how they played with therapists compared to their mothers.
When playing with the therapists, the children would depict towers and bridges crashing down.
“Big structures falling, people flying out windows, firefighters coming, police officers not being able to help, nobody could save them. Those kinds of things were played over and over across the board,” Cohen said.
“With the mothers, they would play a more simple game without any of that drama, without any of the trauma, without any of the disaster.”
They knew that would upset their mothers.
Many of the mothers said they had deliberately shielded information related to 9/11 from their children because they thought it would be too painful.
“(The children) showed us consistently through the years that what was on their minds was all the things that happened to their dads that many of the mothers would’ve sworn they never knew.”
Lynch, the Tuesday’s Children consultant, was a graduate student in social work on 9/11 and participated in a separate study of widows and their children, from infants to teens, who’d lost firefighter fathers.
By the time these children had reached their upper teenage years, some of them didn’t want to have the label anymore of “I’m a 9/11 kid.”
“They wanted to not make that tragedy shape who they are and they wanted to form their own identity.”
A poignant Los Angeles Times story in 2016 reported that many children who coped well initially in the aftermath of 9/11 “succumbed later on to bouts of depression and even self-harm. Others struggled with friendships, feeling uneasy and gossiped about, reluctant to divulge their family history as they moved to new towns or new schools, but unable to keep the word from leaking out.”
Certain life milestones — such as graduating from school, getting a job or having a child of their own — proved difficult, Lynch said.
“We know from 20 years working with these families some of the most difficult moments came 10, 15 years on for some of the kids,” she said.
“A lot of 9/11 kids, when they lost their parent, they also lost that mentor, that life coach, that person who would’ve championed them. I think a graduation and a big job are a moment where you’d expect to turn to that parent and say, ‘Aren’t you proud of me?’ I think that’s where it can hit a little bit harder.”
A lot of 9/11 kids now have kids of their own, she added.
“It’s bittersweet in so many ways because they would’ve liked to have their child meet that parent.”
That said, the children of 9/11 have also shown tremendous resilience, Lynch said.
“We do have a number of 9/11 kids who have gone into peace-building, conflict resolution, social work and fields like that where they feel that they can really make a difference. Clearly it has been shaped by the experience they went through,” she said.
Some children of 9/11 are now also serving as mentors to other children caught up in acts of mass violence, including students who survived the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., in 2018.
“I think it brings so much hope to others who are newly bereaved and newly traumatized and going through this to talk to somebody whose walked the walk and been there.”
Kimmy said she couldn’t be prouder of Zoe and Garrett.
“It’s been tough I’m not going to pretend,” she said. “You can’t believe what these two have been through. The fact they can sit here and enjoy the day and have strong relationships with their partners and continue to want to travel and do good. It makes me very, very proud.”
Unlike some of their peers, the Doyle siblings have not shied away from using social media to remember their father when anniversaries roll around.
“Missing my superman today and always,” Zoe wrote on Instagram last year. “Love you to the moon and back. Je t’aime fort.”
Two years ago, Garrett similarly wrote on Instagram: “I only got 15 months with you, but I will never forget you. Rest easy dad.”
This upcoming anniversary the family will follow the same tradition as in previous years. They will watch the reading aloud of the 9/11 victims’ names on television and spend some quiet time together as a family, maybe take a hike and visit Frank’s tombstone, located in a small graveyard in the Laurentians underneath an apple tree planted by his kids.
The following day, Sept. 12, they will hold a barbecue fundraiser for Team Frank Africa announcing plans to build two more schools in the upcoming year.
Zoe said every now and then someone will come along and ask, “Why don’t you move on?” from her father’s death.
“Some people don’t understand this is a healthy way of grieving and healing,” she said. “And I don’t think it ever stops.”