Fifteen years is the length of childhood, the distance between pacifiers and senior prom, between first grade and first real job. Now there is a new generation of adults who remember Sept. 11, 2001, through the lens of their early youth – some details in sharp focus, others distorted and blurred.
Here, compiled from recent interviews, is how the day unfolded in the memories of some of those children, now in their 20s. The ages and locations given are as they were on 9/11.
Dahlia Gruen, 10, Massachusetts: It was my 10th birthday and I woke up early. It was a big deal because it was the first time I was entering double digits. We had cake for breakfast. I went to school, and the principal said something had happened in New York.
Riley Selig-Addiss, 8, Virginia: Our teacher got us together and said there was a “civil emergency.”
Hiba Elaasar, 7, Louisiana: We have a World Trade Center in New Orleans, too. I thought maybe that’s the one that was hit.
Andrew Wilkins, 6, Michigan: All of a sudden, they were like, “We’re just going to show movies.” They turned off all the lights, and we just sat there, watching movies all day.
Kersti Francis, 9, Virginia: They put on an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” I don’t know why, but there was one episode they would always put on if the teacher needed to leave the classroom.
Alexa Cerf, 8, Washington, D.C.: I was the new kid in school, so when the teacher said, “You might not know what the Pentagon is, but it’s a building that’s very important to us,” I thought she meant important to our school. That a plane had hit a building on campus. I was too embarrassed to ask which building was the Pentagon, but I tried to look out the window for a plane that had crashed.
Kelly Sullivan, 9, Wyoming: All I could really understand was that it was something really important that we were going to remember, so I rushed and looked outside the classroom window, as if I would see any change in the streets of a tiny town thousands of miles from the attacks.
Dara Gell, 9, Manhattan: The plane hit, and there was a huge crashing noise. Our whole school building shook, and the lamp fell off the table. The teacher made us go to our desks and do art.
Bailie Myers, 6, Texas: We all knew something was wrong by the look on her face.
Kersti Francis, 9, Virginia: As we were walking back from lunch, I saw my teacher alone in her classroom, crying.
Kalhan Rosenblatt, 11, Florida: The sound system kept going off. Every few minutes, parents were coming to pick up their kids, so the whole day we heard the sound system.
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At schools across the country, classes grew stranger and smaller as announcements crackled over the public address systems, and students were dismissed one by one. In Maryland, an emergency notification interrupted 11-year-old Angelina Castellano-O’Leary’s choir class, and her teacher abruptly locked the doors and told the students they’d be staying put for a while, and it was probably just a drill. In Pennsylvania, Patrick Molloy, 8, thought it was strange that his classmates all seemed to have doctor appointments on the same day – why else would their parents pick them up so early?
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Kirsten Madden, 10, Texas: By the afternoon, the school was half-empty. My mom had decided not to pick us up until the end. When I got home, she curled up on the ottoman against the television. “Damn it all,” she said, and she told me sometimes cursing is appropriate.
Kersti Francis, 9, Virginia: My mother drove us to the Catholic church. We’re not Catholic, but she drove us to the Catholic church. We went in the sanctuary, and she told me to pray. She told me to pray for the police officers and for America. She went to donate blood, and I was supposed to stay and pray.
Dara Gell, 9, Manhattan: My mother picked me up and told me, “Don’t look at the building, don’t look at the building.” So, of course, I looked at the building. I saw a wing of the plane sticking out of the building, and the wing was on fire.
Nick Waldo, 10, Alaska: My mom told me that some planes had crashed, and being in rural Alaska, I thought a small plane had gone down because of bad weather. I was confused as to why it was a big deal. I said, “Oh, did we know anyone on them?”
Bibi Lewis, 8, Manhattan: I knew the World Trade Center was close, but I didn’t really have a conception of how close it was. And then after a few hours, our neighborhood got really, really dusty. Covered in soot. And then I knew.
Fernando Gonzalez, 9, Manhattan: There was a whole sidewalk of people, a stampede, running in one direction, covered in dust. One woman was running against the crowd. She was screaming that she had to go save her daughter.
Alyssa Alfonso, 6, New Jersey: We went to my grandma’s house. I had never seen her in a mood other than happy to see me. But this was like a party, where the kids have to stay in one room and the adults are in the other room, and we weren’t allowed over there but we didn’t know why.
Madeleine Tick, 9, Wisconsin: We went to piano lessons, but when my brother and I got to the teacher’s house, her whole family was huddled in the kitchen, watching the television.
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The afternoon unfolded and the children watched more news than they’d ever watched before. Tania Cohen, 7, watched at her grandmother’s house in New York. Nick Waldo, 10, watched at his neighbor’s house in Alaska. On screen, the smoking tower collapsed again and again, as if the bottom had been yanked from under it. The tower collapsed on Henry Shah’s television in Pennsylvania, and it collapsed in Georgia, where Sommer Daniel’s mom started yelling “Those bastards!”
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Alexa Cerf, 8, Washington, D.C.: My friend’s mom said, “This footage is inappropriate, turn the channel to something else.” We turned to a cartoon, but the cartoon was “Family Guy,” and it was an episode about sex. Somehow, this is when I finally put it together, that every baby was the result of sex. I felt kind of sick.
Patrick Molloy, 8, Pennsylvania: I’m blind, so I didn’t see the images of the buildings falling, but I heard everything that people were saying. I didn’t hear any airplanes in the sky, though. I remember not hearing any airplanes at all that day.
Tania Cohen, 7, New York: There were Black Hawk helicopters flying over the house into the city. My grandma went into the kitchen and made a big batch of pancakes.
Brandon Zachary, 10, Virginia: I’d been sick the night before with food poisoning, so I was staying home from school.
Sarah Wainio, 14, Maryland: I was wearing black capris, a black tank top and a pair of my mom’s flip-flops. My sister Lizzie had a matching pair.
Brandon: Three months earlier, my mom and my grandparents and I had all gone to see my dad get promoted in his office at the Pentagon.
Sarah: I signed up for French, because Lizzie had taken French. That’s where I first knew something was going on – there was a commotion from the class across the hall.
Brandon: While I was home sick, my mom and I got a call from my dad at the Pentagon, telling us to turn on the television because the first plane had just hit. The second one hit while we were on the phone. My dad hung up to find out what had happened.
Sarah: I was sitting on the gym floor, in rows, in alphabetical order, like we were told. And then the gym teacher came out of the office and said, ‘Sarah, can you come with me?’
Brandon: I went upstairs to the bathroom and when I came downstairs, my mom was sobbing. The news was showing the Pentagon now. It was hit while I was in the bathroom. It was hit as soon as my dad got off the phone.
Sarah: When I got to the office, I saw my dad, standing with a policeman. No one said anything. And then we got in the police car, because my dad was too upset to drive. And I remember being very angry with him, because he wasn’t able to say what happened. I kept saying, “What happened? What happened? What’s wrong?”
Brandon: We switched to a local station that had a camera set up in the Pentagon parking lot. We watched the parking lot because we wanted to see my dad’s red Miata pull out. If we saw it pull out, that meant he was okay. It didn’t pull out. We watched for hours.
Sarah: And eventually my dad said, Lizzie was flying today, and her plane was hijacked. We know because she called mom.
Brandon: In the afternoon, a car pulled up, a big black one, the kind that delivers bad news. My dad jumped out. He hadn’t been able to get his red car out of the parking lot.
Sarah: And I was so, so, sure, by means of some action movie or something, that our government was going to be able to fly a plane next to her and save everyone on board. I was like, okay, this is going to be okay.
Brandon: He was waving his arms and yelling, “I’m okay, I’m okay.”
Sarah: But it wasn’t okay.
Hiba Elaasar, 7, Louisiana: I was a pretty shy and quiet child, but I had made my first friend on my own. After that day, my friend came over and said, we can’t be friends anymore, Hiba. My mom said until this is over, we can’t be friends anymore.
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The 9/11 generation grew up and things changed. Things changed in Kentucky, where 10-year-old Leslie Bentley’s rural Kentucky town was suddenly filled with tent revivals led by preachers warning of the coming apocalypse. And in Pennsylvania, where Henry Shah’s Indian American father told him he had to wear nice clothes and call the TSA agents “sir,” because he might arouse suspicion. Twelve years after the attacks, Kirsten Madden, who had been 10 on 9/11, dedicated her college thesis to the attacks. Fifteen years later, Dara Gell, who had been displaced from her Manhattan home at age 9, took the bar exam to become an immigration lawyer, because 9/11 opened her eyes to racism and Islamophobia.
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Dimitri Diagne, 5, Pennsylvania: In the days after 9/11, I got this irrational fear that Osama bin Laden would come into my room at night with a bunch of al-Qaida guys. I remember saying my prayers because I thought it was the right thing to do, and also because, in the event that Osama bin Laden came into my room, I might be able to recite the prayers from the Koran and the prayers would save me, and he wouldn’t kidnap me.
Shannon Bryant, 9, Georgia: On the night of 9/11, my mom was explaining the notion of terrorism while she made spaghetti. I remember sitting in front of the TV that evening, watching footage of the towers falling, knocking over my own wooden blocks over and over again.
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Jessica Contrera and Karen Heller contributed to this report. All interviews were condensed and edited for length and clarity.