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The Girl in the 9/11 Bubble

Emma Rathkey lost her father in the World Trade Center attacks. Now the only place she can find real comfort is in the company of others just like her.


From left, Jessica Moody, Sydney McLoughlin, Emma Rathkey, Dori Freund, Kara Jerez, and Meghan Brethel, at America's Camp last month.  

By all rights, this should be a fresh start for Emma Rathkey.

It’s the first day of classes of her freshman year at Connecticut College, and she’s one of 500 new arrivals. She seems to blend in perfectly—slender with pale-blue eyes flecked with green, like her father’s, and wearing a pink Izod, blue sweats, and Old Navy sandals. For the first time in years, no one around her knows anything about her.

Starting over, however, is more loaded for Emma than it is for her classmates. Her father was killed on September 11. “David. Alan. James. Rathkey,” she tells me slowly, as she watches me write his name. He worked for I. Q. Financial Systems, on the 83rd floor of the North Tower. While other children who lost a parent that day might take steps to avoid being branded the 9/11 kid in their first week at college, Emma still wears on her right wrist a light-blue rubber bracelet with the words 9/11 REMEMBER HONOR HOPE.

She got it at a place called America’s Camp, a one-week, all-expenses-paid summer program held in the Berkshires for children who lost parents on 9/11. For Emma, who’s been to the camp every summer since the attack, it’s the only place in the world where she feels free to be herself, where she feels unwatched and unjudged. “It’s my favorite place on Earth,” she had told me, crying and smiling at the same time, when I had visited her there a week earlier.

At camp, Emma was effusive, giggly, emotional. She and her friends never seemed to stop hugging and crying, a seven-day marathon of catharsis. But today at college, she walks briskly past her new classmates to greet me, and I see that she’s changed. She looks not unfriendly but guarded, not sad but not carefree either. “Camp’s my comfort zone,” she says. Emma knows she’s in a period of transition and that she has new friends to make and a new world to explore. But part of her can’t wait to see her camp friends again. She texts them, e-mails them, visits them on Facebook. They go on family vacations together and have a sleepover at Christmastime and monthly get-togethers, where they sing songs and relive camp memories. Emma has a CD with America’s Camp music in her car. They’re her closest confidants—closer than her high-school friends or the kids she grew up with. During the school’s most important fall social weekend, she plans to be at the wedding of an America’s Camp counselor. It’s like she wrote in her college essay: “I live for one out of 52 weeks a year.”

For the children who lost a parent in the World Trade Center—2,752 of them under the age of 18—their grief has been especially pernicious. The public, ongoing, and politicized fallout from the event means these children are forced to contend with their loss again and again. Trauma experts compare their experiences to those of kids who lost parents in the Holocaust, Bosnia, or Rwanda. How do the children of 9/11 heal? In all manner of ways, of course. Emma Rathkey, for her part, appears to find comfort from only one source: the small group of other kids who have been through exactly what she has.

Emma grew up in mountain lakes, New Jersey, a heavily wooded, well-off bedroom community of some 4,000 people about an hour’s commute to lower Manhattan. “It’s one of those towns where everyone knows everything about each other,” she says. Her mother, Julia, stayed home and took care of Emma and her younger brothers, twins Matthew and Ian—but Emma was a daddy’s girl. She and David looked alike, and had similar dispositions. “He was quiet, a little taciturn,” says Julia, “and she could be that way, too.” They also shared a passion for soccer. “He was my soccer coach for our entire lives,” Emma says. “When I started playing, he was my coach. When he died, he was the coach still. He loved it.”

Most weekday mornings, Emma would still be sleeping when David pulled out of the driveway. But on the morning of September 11, 2001, she was awake for some reason. “I listened to him eat breakfast, then come back upstairs,” Emma says, “and I just didn’t get out of bed. I remember lying there and just not getting up to say good-bye.”

The loudspeaker crackled at the end of her seventh-grade French class: Will everyone please stay in their classrooms after the bell rings. Someone is coming around to talk to you. Everyone laughed. “We’re all like, they probably need us to sign a permission slip,” Emma remembers. “And then somebody came to my class and said, ‘The Twin Towers have been hit by planes.’ And automatically, I just start crying.”

She remembers the confusion at the school, and the seemingly endless wait for her mother to come get her, and the question she asked when she saw her mother crying. “Is Dad going to be okay?”

And, finally, her mother’s answer: “I don’t think so.”


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