For one family, Sept. 11 is more than a date

This story was originally published at reesenews.org.

Greensboro, N.C.
For many people, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, are a national tragedy.

For 10-year-old Charlie Stephens, Sept. 11 represents something far different — it’s his birthday.

As people across the nation prepare to honor the 10th anniversary of the attacks that took the lives of 2,819 people, the Stephens family of Greensboro, N.C., will honor the life of one.

“He was a really nice gift for such a shitty day,” recalled Jane Stephens, Charlie’s mother.

Just how nice a gift became clear when interviews with the family revealed connections with Sept. 11 that run deeper than a date.

“Disaster baby”
Charlie’s birthday is met with mixed reactions by people outside of his family.

It’s not uncommon for Jack, Charlie’s older brother, to tell people that Charlie is a “disaster baby.”

A disaster baby? What does that mean?

He was born on September 11, 2001, Jack responds.

“Charlie was born on 9/11?” asked one of Charlie’s friends after hearing this revelation. “That sucks.”

But for all intents and purposes, Charlie’s life is far removed from anything resembling the horrors of Sept. 11. The Stephens live a relatively normal life in a neighborhood that would do well to represent the American suburbs.

Running parallel to Independence Road and Colonial Avenue, the Stephens residence on Liberty Drive in Greensboro is surrounded by people who display American flags on their front porches and car bumpers.

Even the relationships between the children are fairly typical. Jack feels the weight and the stress that accompanies being the oldest. Charlie continuously competes with his older brother on the sports field, in the swimming pool and in the classroom. Lilly, the youngest child and the only girl, rises above it all.

Charlie (far right) receieves a swimming medal. "He's loyal to his friends," says Jane, Charlie's mother. Photo by Jonathan Michels.

Jane isn’t sure how much the events of Sept. 11 shaped her son, but she admits that Charlie is special.

“He’s just peaceful,” she said. “He loves God. He loves his friends. He’s the toughest, sweetest kid I know. Not that my other children aren’t. He’s just different.”

Just a regular birthday
It had been almost a decade since Jane looked at the newspapers she’d collected from Sep. 11 and the days that followed. Until now, there hadn’t been any reason to pull them out.

Jane carefully laid out yellowed copies of The New York Times and The Greensboro News and Record on the kitchen counter as if they were family heirlooms telling the story of Charlie’s birthday.

Jane pointed to a picture of a flight attendant from Greensboro named Sandy Bradshaw. Charlie looked at Bradshaw’s picture as Jane explained that she was on board flight United 93 when it crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pa.
At first, Charlie seemed interested in discovering more about the events that occurred on his birthday. After several minutes, however, a look of boredom glazed across his face. To Charlie, Sept. 11 is just his birthday.

Before his family sat him down and told him about what his birthday means to other people, Charlie’s knowledge about Sept. 11 was limited.

“It was kind of like a regular birthday to me because I was born on that day,” Charlie said matter-of-factly.
Charlie knows it was a really bad day, but he sees the tragic events of that day through the eyes of a child.

He knows Osama bin Laden led the attacks and that they were designed to hurt a lot of people. He knows people lost their lives in New York, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania, but the numbers are fuzzy.

He guessed that 10,000 people died that day, but backtracked when his older brother Jack let out a muffled laugh.

5,000? Charlie guessed. 3,000?

Ed reassured his son that it was okay that he didn’t know.

Charlie is vaguely aware that America is fighting overseas, but doesn’t connect these conflicts to 9/11. While Jane shuffled through the old newspapers strewn across the counter, Charlie reflected on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“It’s sad to see our country at war,” he noted. Charlie pointed out that the U.S. has had a lot of wars after 9/11.

“Actually,” Jane told Charlie, “America has been at war since the Sept. 11 attacks.”

“We have?” Charlie asked. “With who?”

“Looking for Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein,” replied Jane.

“Who’s Saddam Hussein?” Charlie asked.

In need of a reason to smile
Charlie listened intently to his mother talk about his aunt’s Sept. 11 experiences as he looked at a picture of the Twin Towers, billowing with smoke. Jane pointed out that a lot of people in New York City were covered in ash that day. She said the attacks had a way of putting everyone on an equal social plane. You couldn’t tell whether people were white or black.

Charlie asked if his Aunt Liz was covered in ashes that day.

“No,” Jane answered. “She was farther away.”

Jane’s sister, Liz Welchman, admits she was probably one of the few New Yorkers who had a reason to smile on Sept. 11.

Welchman, a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate, moved to New York City in 1997 to work as a graphic designer. Her first few years freelancing were tough, she said, but New York cast enough of a magic spell to compensate for the tough times.

Growing up, Welchman’s father worked in the city, and it was a frequent destination spot for the entire family. As a child, Welchman associated New York City with Sesame Street, high energy and lots of people. She even had an affinity for the city’s most mundane aspects, including the zip code, 10010.

By 2001, Welchman had found comfort in fusing the enchanting city of her childhood with the place that she now called home.

She didn’t think Sept. 11 would be different from any other day.

She began her usual morning bike ride around 8 o’clock that morning from Gramercy Park to Soho. Making her way downtown, Welchman noticed that people were spilling out from the sidewalks and into the streets.

There were more people than usual, and they were standing and pointing at the World Trade Center buildings. The North Tower billowed with smoke.

Shaken, Welchman pressed on to work. Just as she chained up her bike, she looked up to see the second plane pound into the South Tower. She heard a loud bang as a wave of heat rippled from the building.

I hope they’re getting people out of the towers, she thought.

Her co-workers huddled around the office televisions. All of them were tuned to the news, consumed by the drama unfolding just out the window and down the street. When she called her father to let him know she was safe, he told her another bit of news: Jane was in labor.

Later, Welchman and her co-workers went up to the roof to get a better view. From this vantage point, she saw people jumping to their deaths to avoid incineration. Then the South Tower fell.

The air was thick with screams and the shrill sound of sirens. People covered with ash ran through the the streets, fleeing the ash and debris.

Even today, the sound of a siren takes Welchman back to the morning of Sept. 11.

“It was kind of like watching a movie and you don’t think it’s real,” she said.

The feeling worsened when the North Tower fell.

After terrorists struck the Pentagon, Welchman left work. She didn’t want to be alone, so she tagged along with a group of friends heading to Soho.

Although Welchman might have been far removed from the Greensboro delivery room, her thoughts were firmly with her sister.

Born at the right time
When Jane and her husband, Ed, checked into the hospital on Sept. 11, there wasn’t any reason to believe that Charlie’s birth would be anything but a joyous event. After all, Ed and Jane were seasoned pros, having successfully navigated the delivery of their first child.

The check-in process went smoothly and soon after, nurses whisked the couple back into the delivery room, where they promptly prepared Jane for childbirth.

Things improved further when Jane was given an epidural shot.

“It actually worked,” she said, surprised. “It didn’t work with Jack or Lilly. But with Charlie, it worked perfectly.”

With his wife comfortable, Ed turned on the television and settled in for a smooth delivery. He began flipping through the channels when Jane asked him to turn it back to CNN and the image of an airliner rocketing into the World Trade Center’s North Tower.

As the number of attacks mounted throughout the morning, the mood in the normally cheerful delivery room changed.

“Nurses were very melancholy,” she said. “Everyone was walking around going, ‘What just happened?’”

Even Jane’s focus had shifted from the delivery of her baby to her sister in Manhattan. She called her parents to find out if they’d received word from their daughter.

Nothing.

“She was my main concern,” Jane said. “I wanted to hear my sister’s voice and make sure she was okay.”

Unbeknownst to Welchman, people had been having difficulty making calls into the city all morning. Atop another roof, this time at a friend’s apartment building, Welchman called Jane.

Jane went into labor by early afternoon. When the phone rang, Jane was in the middle of pushing out Charlie. It was Welchman.

Are you okay? Yes.

Are you okay? Yes.

For Jane, the sound of her sister’s voice brought sharp relief.

For Welchman, the realization that Charlie would be born on September 11 was a sweet revelation.

Liz Welchman smiles as she learns that Charlie will be born on September 11. The photo was taken from the roof of a friend's apartment near the World Trade Center. Photo courtesy of Liz Welchman.

“I actually had a smile on my face,” she said, “and you don’t see anyone else with a smile on their face on Sept. 11.”

After witnessing the horrific events that day, Welchman said Charlie was the personification of a silver lining.

After the phone call, Jane continued pushing and Charlie was born without complications.

Welchman carried the knowledge of his birth with her for the rest of the day as she continued visiting with friends. She even joined some of them to toast the birthday of a co-worker. Being around other people seemed to dull the shock of burning buildings and falling bodies.

It wasn’t until she returned home that evening that the day’s events began crashing in around her.

“I sat on the couch and felt very lonely,” she said.

Back in the Stephens’ kitchen, Jane wept at the trauma that her sister suffered that day.

Jumping into the deep end
Charlie’s father, Ed, often wonders how much of his son’s knowledge about Sept. 11 is from memory and how much is from stories.

For the Stephens, the events of Sept. 11 are family lore. As much as anyone else, Ed knows how important the day is.

Ed was born and raised in Greensboro. He swam competitively during his time at East Guilford High School and it played an increasingly important role in his life through the years.

As soon as he could leave home, Ed fled to Eastern Carolina University, although his time there was short-lived. After just one year, Ed transferred to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he received a bachelor’s degree in finance in 1992.

After performing various jobs, including a successful stint in desktop publishing, Ed returned to swimming as a coach in 1995. Ed met Jane when he began coaching her brother.

“All of a sudden, life is coming at us,” Ed said. “Married. Baby. Needed a real job. Needed to go back and use the degree.”

Jane worked as an interior designer with her mother, but found it difficult to manage her time while raising their first child.

“Just paying the bills, getting the work done, dealing with the baby,” Jane said. “Working your way through the fog of small children.”

In December of 2000, Ed took a job Greensboro branch of Morgan Stanley. By Ed’s account, the position was his first grown-up job, far from his days as a swim coach.

Ed admits that his small-town upbringing might have made him naive about the financial industry. He said it didn’t take him long to realize how cutthroat finance could be.

But the job wasn’t without its perks. At that time, it was customary for new recruits to receive nearly a month of training at the company’s offices in the World Trade Center where Morgan Stanley owned space on 20 floors in the South Tower.

For a Greensboro native, whose only other residence had been Greenville, N.C., a city even smaller than Greensboro, the experience of living in New York City was huge.

Postcard courtesy of Ed Stephens.

“It was definitely a city mouse-country mouse kind of thing,” he recalled.

When he wasn’t training, Ed navigated the streets of New York, discovering places like Manhattan and Chinatown that were vastly different from the North Carolina towns he knew.

Ed mailed his wife a postcard of the World Trade Center towering over the city skyline. He drew an arrow beside the 61st floor of the South Tower and wrote, “I am here.”

On the back of the postcard, he wrote:

Hi punkin!

I’m up here eating my lunch and looking down on the Statue of Liberty. It looks so small from up here. The time is sure going slow. I can’t wait to come home and see you. Give Jack a big hug and kiss for me. I hope you got in O.K. I miss you!

Love, Eddie

Six months later, with his training complete, Ed was at his wife’s side in the hospital preparing for Charlie’s birth. The Twin Towers lay in heaps of twisted steel and concrete.

Postcard courtesy of Ed Stephens.

Unlike his experiences during Jack’s birth, Ed’s attention during Charlie’s birth was split between the healthy delivery of his second son, his wife’s anxiety about the safety of her sister and the shaky ground of the financial industry in the wake of the attacks.

Am I supposed to go back to the office? he asked himself at his wife’s side. Do I need to call all my clients and tell them their money is okay?

The unprecedented six-day closing of the stock exchange removed Ed’s short-term worry, but once again, Ed’s professional career faced an uncertain future. Building a reputable name in th

e financial industry was difficult enough during normal times. Trying to do it as a rookie became nearly impossible after Sept. 11 sent shock waves through the market.

During this time, Ed said his introduction to prospective clients went something like, “Hi, my name is Ed Stephens and I have been doing this for 15 minutes. I realize that you have worked a lifetime to save this money, but I’d really like a shot at investing it for you in the midst of our country being attacked.”

Ed watches proudly as his children receive swimming medals. Photo by Jonathan Michels.

Ed wasn’t able to acquire enough clients to maintain his position as a financial advisor. He left Morgan Stanley in 2002.

Now, ten years after Charlie’s birth, Ed is a senior financial advisor with Merrill Lynch. Swimming is still a big part of Ed’s life–all three children swim with the Greensboro Community Swim Association. Ed cheers from the sidelines.

A good day
This Sept. 11 is Charlie’s 10th birthday. His family will most likely celebrate his birth with gifts, candles and birthday cake.

In his own way, Charlie plans to honor the people who died in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Charlie and Jack each bought a special firework during a weekend trip to Tennessee. The bin Laden Noggin is a squat, fist-sized rocket painted to caricature the deceased terrorist. Dressed in a white turban, bin Laden’s bearded face and head explode after it shoots up into the sky in a stream of fire.

Charlie would like to light the firework during the morning, when the attacks first began.

But Charlie also has the idea that the grandest memorial might be himself.

“It was a bad day but it was a good day, because I was born,” Charlie said. “I was replacing one person that got killed.”

Jacki Huntington contributed reporting to this article.

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