Robyn Higley has always hated September. It’s the month when everything bad happens, when her spirits, generally so bright and bubbly the rest of the year, grow bleak and deflated.
She feels sad in September. Though she doesn’t fully understand why.
As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, she knows that this September is going to be worse than even the 19 others she has lived through. The media will endlessly reprise that terrible day, there will be an outpouring of patriotic fervor and emoting, and she will be even more on show than in previous years.
“I do not like it all,” she said. “Yes I get it, the 20th is a big thing. But there’s so much expectation of how I’m supposed to feel. People expect this grieving little girl who’s so heartbroken. But I’m almost 20 years old, I’m grown up now.”
It’s complicated being Robyn Higley around 9/11. How should she grieve for the father whom she never met? What should she make of the label that has been pinned to her throughout her life – “9/11 baby” – when she herself was not even there on that tragic day?
On 11 September 2001 her father, Robert Higley – Robbie as he was known to all – went to work on the 92nd floor of the south tower of New York’s World Trade Center. An insurance executive, he had started a new job three months before and was excited that day to have been asked to step up as acting manager.
When the north tower was struck at 8.46am, Robbie called his wife Vycki and told her that something had happened in the other building but that he was fine. “It was an agonizingly short conversation when I look back on it now,” Vycki Higley said.
It took Vycki time to piece together what happened next. Her husband helped evacuate 12 of his colleagues, ushering them into an elevator that was one of the last to reach the ground floor before United Airlines flight 175 slammed into the south tower at 9.03am.
Robbie didn’t make it out. He chose not to get into the elevator because he wanted to “do the managerial thing”, Vycki said, and make sure everyone else was all right.
Vycki was left a widow on 9/11, a single mother caring for her four-year-old daughter Amanda. She was also heavily pregnant with Robyn.
By the time Robyn was born seven weeks later, on 3 November 2001, the “9/11 baby” was already a celebrity. Such was the level of interest in her as a newborn victim of the twin towers attacks that a camera crew from ABC News’ 20/20 was present in the delivery room at her birth.
“It was hilarious,” Robyn said. “When my mom went into labour she got to the hospital and found ABC News already waiting for her.”
Robyn Higley is one of 105 children who were in the womb when their fathers were killed in the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. As a member of this exceptionally rarified club, she entered the world and grew up in an environment in which her identity had already been set for her.