News & Politics

The Babies of 9/11: “I Don’t Want It to Define Him”

Amid the tragedies of September 11, 2001, came hope—in the faces of children born that day. Six years later, six families look back and talk about their 9/11 babies.

When Alex Heitkemper called family and friends to say that his wife, Sarah, had given birth to their son, Johnny—shown here with his sister, Mary—nearly everyone said: “It’s so great to have some good news today.”


There’s a memorial in the park a few minutes from Johnny Heitkemper’s house, built to honor 9/11 victims, including five who lived near his University Park neighborhood.

Johnny calls the area “my park” because his sister, Mary, showed him that his birthday is engraved on the plaque. When he visits, he sits on a rock and tells his parents, “I’m gonna say a prayer.”

Hours after his son was born—after learning that his house was shaking because military aircraft were flying so close—Alex Heitkemper was contemplating his newborn’s future: What does this mean for him? Are we going to war for 30 years?

“You’re angry at the people who did it,” says Alex, a financial analyst. “Then it’s like, hold on—we just had a baby.

Alex and his wife, Sarah, got to Silver Spring’s Holy Cross Hospital around 5 am and watched as the second plane hit the tower.

“It was almost like you had to compartmentalize,” she says. “Once you’re in labor, there aren’t any choices. There’s this weird sense of inevitability—this baby’s going to come out.”

Sarah has trouble talking about the day her son was born. If she writes his birth date on a form and someone asks about it, she’ll say, “It was a hard day for everyone,” and move on.

“I guess because I don’t want it to define Johnny,” she says.

Johnny plays on soccer and basketball teams his dad coaches. He’s planning to be a lobster fisherman, even though he’s never eaten lobster.

When Alex recently saw the movie United 93, he thought about Johnny.

“At some point he’ll be old enough to watch what happened—the fire, the planes, the devastation,” he says. “How’s he going to react?”

Photograph by Simon Bruty