A family reflects upon Sept. 11

Journalist Jacki Huntington and I met with a North Carolina family in July to discuss their personal connections to the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York. During a single afternoon, our discussion with the family uncovered a treasure trove of perspectives and opinions about the national tragedy.

You can read the story here.

Oftentimes, journalists are frustrated by the amount of material that must be cut from the finished story. The following is a transcript of our interview with the Stephens family. Although the transcript has been edited for space and clarity, I’m excited to publish it for the added depth that it brings to a unique and intensely personal retrospective of the Sept.11 attacks.

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JM: What do you know about Sept. 11?
Charlie: This is what I know. The terrorists was lead by a terrorist named Osama bin Laden. He knew exactly where to hit the towers that they would fall down and burn. He knew that a lot of people would die. I knew that a lot of people got killed on that day…over 10,000 people.

(Jack laughs)

Charlie: Maybe not 10,000 but 5,000. 3,000.

Ed: Don’t pin yourself in. It’s a lot of people.

Charlie: It was a bad day but it was a good day because I was born and I was replacing one person that got killed. I also know that they were going to hit Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania.

Jack: What he means is that they knew they were going to hit the Pentagon but the people on the plane that was heading to the Pentagon…the people hit the cockpit with all the terrorists and crashed the plane because they knew they were going to die.

Charlie: There were two guys on the plane and they told their family that they were going to die and they had to do this. They did that and saved a lot of lives. Everyone died on that plane. I think it was like a moment where our country came together and worked together as a team.

Ed: The answer you just gave about replacing one of the people. Where’d you come up with that?

Charlie: I just thought about that myself a minute ago. I have another friend that was born on that day. He also replaced one of the people that died.

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JM: Have you ever met someone who had a different view of your birthday?
Charlie: My mom grew up in Connecticut and my aunt, she was riding her bicycle down the street when the towers were crashing down.

Jack: She watched it.

Charlie: Yeah, she watched the whole thing. I think it’s different for them because they grew up there and it was really sad for them to see it. I never saw the inside of the Twin Towers so I don’t know about the inside of them and how they were the best towers in the whole country. When I was young at 18 months old, I didn’t know anything about my birthday because I wasn’t very old. I just knew that it was a really bad day.

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JM: When did you know there was something different about your birthday?
Charlie: About three or four.

Jack: His third birthday was a big birthday and he started maturing and how to process things in his brain and remember what happened. It came up one day and he’s remembered it. I remember the conversation. He knew there was something on his birthday but he didn’t really know what it was. He asked, “What was so special about my birthday?” We sat him down and talked about how the Twin Towers crashed. We talked about how that was a sad day.

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JM: Jack, how do you feel about Charlie’s birthday?
Jack: I don’t remember where I was. Anyone older than eight would probably remember where they were when the Twin Towers crashed.

Ed: I can’t decide if it’s, “I have those memories” or we’ve told the story so many times that it’s become part of the memory.

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JM: Is the story of Charlie’s birth talked about a lot in the family?
Jack: Kids will ask when his birthday is and we’ll be like, “Oh, he’s a disaster baby.” They’ll be like, “What does that mean?” I would say, “He was born on 9/11.” We have a baby cousin who was born on December 7, which is Pearl Harbor. We have two disaster babies. One is the day and the other is a day that you still remember.

Charlie: My uncle,  he has the same birthday as me. Of course it’s a different year. It’s kind of weird that his is September 11 but not the real day.

Jack: When push comes to shove, his birthday is very special.

Charlie: I asked him how he felt on his birthday when it crashed. Just how he felt when he was watching it on his birthday. I would say that it was weird for me.

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JM: Jack, what is Sept. 11 to you?
Jack: My little brother’s birthday. Every week, 9/11 comes up. I don’t know how but it does. I will probably never forget that day. It’s a very important day.

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JM: How does Sept. 11 come up?
Jack: TV, bring it up, war.

Charlie: One weekend we went up to Tennessee and we went to a fireworks shop.

(Jack laughs)

Charlie: It was a really funny firework.

Jack: It was called a bin Laden Noggin, which is semi-inappropriate but it’s also funny at the same time. It shoots up a fountain of fire and then explodes.

Charlie: It makes a gunshot sort of noise. I wanted to use his on my birthday. I already did mine and I asked him to do it on my birthday because I thought it would be funny.

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JM: What are your plans for the firework, Jack?
Jack: Probably to light it on the night of his birthday.

Charlie: Or in the morning because they crashed it in the morning.

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JM: Do you see a connection between Sept. 11 and the wars that America is fighting?
Charlie: Yes. Seeing our country fight wars is kind of sad. It kind of reflects on 9/11 because I think they had a lot of wars after 9/11.

Jane: We’ve been at war since.

Charlie: We have?

Jane: Yes

Charlie: With who?

Jane: Looking for Osama bin Laden. Saddam Hussein.

Charlie: Who’s Saddam Hussein?

Jane: Another bad man, but we didn’t kill him. His own people killed him. While it was a really bad day, it kind of brought the whole country to our knees and awoken in us the fact that life is more precious than the daily grind we’re stuck in. So many people sacrificed their lives that day that it made you humble as a human being.

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JM: Why do you think this national unity was short-lived?
Jane: Because we’re an egregious nation. We’re greedy. This is what, 10 or 12 days of newspapers? That seemed like a lifetime. We have a tendency to not want to live in that place. We want to live in our…we focus on our needs and our wants. I think this September 11 is going to be huge. It’s been 10 years and it’s time to remember why we’re here.
It’s those things that keep us in check. It’s the things that keep us alive and real and honest.

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