It’s been 20 years since 9/11. Here’s how lives were forever changed

In their own words

People say, 'You were part of 9/11.' I just tell them,

9/11 is a part of me

-Tom Canavan,

World Trade Center attack survivor

September 11, 2001: Millions witnessed planes crash into the World Trade Center, then the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. Thousands died. Many lost loved ones or their sense of safety, went to war or faced discrimination. But their journeys didn’t end there.

CNN asked readers to share how their lives have changed in the past 20 years. These are their stories of pain, loss, transformation and, in some cases, triumph.

In this still from video, Tom Canavan stops to talk to journalists after digging himself out of the rubble of the collapsed South Tower on September 11, 2001. (Reuters)

Tom Canavan

Survivor of the World Trade Center attack

62 | Poughkeepsie, New York

September 11, 2001, never really ended for Tom Canavan, who was evacuated from the North Tower’s 47th floor after the plane hit, then buried when the South Tower came down. He dug his way free, one of fewer than two dozen to survive the collapse. It’s still hard to sleep after what he saw, he said. He previously worked with the 9/11 Memorial and Museum to educate others and preserve the legacies of those who died.

Canavan has a tattoo of the Twin Towers as a symbol of his survival and to honor the victims of the attack. (Courtesy Tom Canavan)

Canavan poses at the 9/11 memorial. He worked at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum for almost six years. (Courtesy Tom Canavan)

Angela Mistrulli hugs her father, Joseph, in a family photo taken in 2000. (Courtesy Angela Mistrulli)

Angela Mistrulli

Lost her father

37 | Eau Claire, Wisconsin

Angela Mistrulli’s father, Joseph, and her mom were set to go on their first real vacation together on 9/11, but he got called in to work first. He was a carpenter working at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center’s North Tower. Angela Mistrulli was 17. She said the unexpected fallout she continues to deal with after his loss has made it difficult to heal.

Mistrulli is now a full-time mom to her two children and recently moved to Wisconsin. (Courtesy Angela Mistrulli)

Sadia Sheikh, left, smiles with her husband and mother-in-law around July 2001 in San Antonio, Texas. (Courtesy Sadia Sheikh)

Sadia Sheikh

Vilified for her religion

50 | San Antonio

September 11, 2001, was a wake-up call, said Sadia Sheikh, who moved to the US in 1978 from Pakistan. When she turned on the TV that morning, what she saw on the screen hit her hard. At that moment, as a Muslim American, she said she knew her life would never be the same again.

Sadia Sheikh poses in a photo with her family. (@SherryJanePhotography)

Ivilina Popova poses for a photo at the World Trade Center in the summer of 2000. (Courtesy Ivilina Popova)

Ivilina Popova

Witness to the attacks in New York

59 | Austin, Texas

Ivilina Popova and her twin sister, Elmira, came to the US from Bulgaria in 1991. After working at universities in different cities, they left academia so they could be together. The pair moved to New Jersey, Ivilina said, and landed jobs on Wall Street. When the second plane hit the World Trade Center on 9/11, she said she felt numb and as though darkness took over as she fled with her sister.

Ivilina Povova, right, smiles with her twin sister, Elmira, in 2007. (Ernie Kee)

Narges Mohammad Mahdi, right, poses with her family in 2004. (Courtesy Narges Mohammad Mahdi)

Narges Mohammad Mahdi

Afghan woman whose life changed

28 | Boston

As a child, Narges Mohammad Mahdi watched the 9/11 attacks on TV but later witnessed in person as Kabul, her home, was invaded by US and other international forces. The imagery has never left her mind: While Mohammad Mahdi has mourned the lost lives of Americans and Afghan civilians — including her own family — she has also dealt with a sense of publicly imposed guilt and responsibility for 9/11.

Mohammad Mahdi, seen here this year, says 9/11 never leaves her mind. (Courtesy Narges Mohammad Mahdi)

Christopher Featherston stands outside the Pentagon in Washington, DC, following the September 11 attack. (Courtesy Christopher Featherston)

Christopher Featherston

Survived attack on the Pentagon

59 | Falls Church, Virginia

It felt like the entire office lifted up, then dropped, when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, Christopher Featherston remembers. He was on the phone when the plane hit just below his office, he said, and the person he was talking to thought he’d hung up. He escaped with his coworkers, but 184 people in the plane and the building died. Featherston said the tragedy pushed him to make some big life changes.

Featherston’s Air Force dog tags were on his keyring in a bag under his desk on 9/11. They were later found in the rubble and returned to him months after the attack. (Courtesy Christopher Featherston)

Featherston stands outside the Pentagon in 2021. (Courtesy Christopher Featherston)

Jane Trudeau-Smith smiles for a photo in 2001. (Courtesy Jane Trudeau-Smith)

Jane Trudeau-Smith

Former Red Cross volunteer at Ground Zero

52 | Beecher, Illinois

While many civilians avoided Ground Zero in the weeks following 9/11, Jane Trudeau-Smith found herself barreling toward it. The former New Yorker said she had seen on TV that the Red Cross was looking for volunteers. For five weeks, she made the trek each day from Long Island to a Red Cross site near the World Trade Center. She recalls the sights and sounds as vividly as she continues to feel their impact.

Trudeau-Smith held on to the Red Cross badge she had as a Ground Zero volunteer. (Courtesy Jane Trudeau-Smith)

Trudeau-Smith said she now lives each day “on the offense.” (Courtesy Jane Trudeau-Smith)

Jeremy Booth, left, poses with his dad around 2000. (Courtesy Jeremy Booth)

Jeremy Booth

Became a firefighter after 9/11

48 | Martinez, California

Jeremy Booth was just coming in to his finance job at San Francisco’s iconic Transamerica Pyramid building when the Twin Towers were struck. Watching coverage of the rescue efforts later, what he saw of the FDNY’s heroic response set him on a dramatically different path. After years of training, he is now a captain with the Richmond Fire Department in California and says those scenes still impact how he does his work.

Booth battles a fire in Richmond, California. (Courtesy Jeremy Booth)

Anisha D’Costa smiles for a picture in her hometown of Pune, India, in 1999. (Courtesy Anisha D’Costa)

Anisha D’Costa

Vilified because of her race

42 | Oak Park, Illinois

Anisha D’Costa came to the US from Pune, India, on a student visa one year before 9/11. The experience of air travel changed after that day, and D’Costa said it has been demoralizing for her. She said she is scrutinized because of the color of her skin, has been subjected to invasive airport screenings and has paid extra for direct flights to avoid the extra security attention.

D’Costa, pictured in 2007, says her race and ethnicity have made her a target of extra scrutiny since the attacks. (Courtesy Anisha D’Costa)

Ash Macfarlane is seen during the battle of Samarra in Iraq in October 2004. A week earlier, an IED ambush destroyed the vehicle he was in. (Courtesy Ash Macfarlane)

Ash Macfarlane

Served in Iraq & Afghanistan

50 | Lawrence, Kansas

Serving as a US Army combat engineer, Ash Macfarlane was at a NATO training course in Germany on 9/11. He said he was shocked, but quickly realized the US would soon go to war. Macfarlane fought in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm and was deployed there again in 2004, when he was wounded by an IED. He was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011. He now works for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Macfarlane now works for the Department of Veterans Affairs. (Courtesy Ash Macfarlane)

Zayna Gawhari, seen here in 2001, says she was able to receive an English curriculum education in Afghanistan after the US invasion. (Courtesy Zayna Gawhari)

Zayna Gawhari

Afghan woman whose life changed

22 | Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Zayna Gawhari was only a toddler when 9/11 happened, but she has experienced the impact of it throughout her life. The American military presence in Kabul meant Gawhari was able to get an education from elementary through early high school. But it also meant conflict: additional terrorist attacks, regular bomb drills at school, homes with safe rooms and bulletproof cars. These experiences, she says, instilled in her open-mindedness, strength and resilience.

Gawhari, pictured here in 2020, says it’s hard to think about this year’s anniversary given recent events in Afghanistan. (Courtesy Zayna Gawhari))

Thomas Dugan, shown here in 2001, says every person has a story to tell. (Courtesy Thomas Dugan)

Thomas Dugan

Teaches the post-9/11 generation

40 | Suffield, Connecticut

The call to "Never Forget" 9/11 is a challenge in Thomas Dugan's line of work. His high school students have no memories of it; they were all born afterward. Dugan, who was in college in 2001, said he tries to help them understand the tragedy through stories — including his own of being evacuated from his home near a Boston skyscraper. But the lessons evolve: “I'm constantly adjusting as we get further and further away.”

Dugan is now a high school teacher. (Courtesy Thomas Dugan)

Elizabeth Nolan said she gives herself permission to avoid situations that make her uncomfortable. (Courtesy Elizabeth Nolan)

Elizabeth Nolan

Lost her sense of safety

45 | Nassau County, New York

When the 9/11 attacks took place, Elizabeth Nolan worked in finance on Wall Street, not far from the New York Stock Exchange. She evacuated her building and tried to escape the chaos. Since that day, she said, she scans for exits everywhere she goes and avoids large crowds and high-rise buildings. Now, she said she has PTSD and has been fighting for 20 years to reclaim her life.

Nolan said she has been living with PTSD since 9/11. (Courtesy Elizabeth Nolan)

Carole O’Hare stands behind her mother, Hilda Marcin, left, and her sister Betty at a family wedding around 1999. (Courtesy Carole O’Hare)

Carole O’Hare

Lost her mother

69 | Scottsdale, Arizona

Carole O’Hare was up early on September 11, 2001, because her mother was flying from New Jersey to live with her and her husband in their California home. Hilda Marcin, 79, had recently retired after working as a teacher’s aide for special needs children. She was the oldest passenger on United Flight 93, which crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing all 40 passengers and crew on board.

O’Hare speaks at a 2004 news conference in San Francisco to announce a memorial for passengers and crew of Flight 93. (Paul Sakuma/AP)

Because of how he was treated after 9/11, Sachin Golhar says he feels part of his young adult life was taken away. (Courtesy Sachin Golhar)

Sachin Golhar

Vilified for his race

34 | Detroit

Sachin Golhar was an eighth grader sitting in science class when he watched the towers fall. He remembers some of his friends looking back at him and that’s when he knew, he said, that they probably wouldn’t be his friends much longer. He was the only brown kid in his grade. Even though his family practiced a different religion, he said people at his predominantly White school thought he was Muslim, like the terrorists responsible for 9/11.

Golhar is now a senior engineer in the automotive industry. (Courtesy Sachin Golhar)

Jessica Tanner and her parents, Howard and Anne Flugmacher, attend an FDNY Christmas party in the mid-1990s. (Courtesy Jessica Tanner)

Jessica Tanner

Daughter of a 9/11 first responder

32 | New Hartford, New York

In the days after 9/11, Jessica Tanner said her first-ever prayer. Her firefighter father, Howard Flugmacher, had been called in to join his unit in Brooklyn, and they hadn't heard from him since. Six days later, they got the call: He was alive. “He was not well, though,” said Tanner, who was 12 then. She said their struggles after that led to her career in counseling and another important anniversary on August 27.

Tanner and her parents participate at a stair climb event honoring 9/11 first responders in Utica, New York, in 2019. (Courtesy Jessica Tanner)

Howard Flugmacher, pictured here in the late 1990s, said being a firefighter was the best job he ever had. (Courtesy Jessica Tanner)

Howard Flugmacher

Firefighter at Ground Zero

68 | New Hartford, New York

"This is probably as close to hell as we'll ever get," Howard Flugmacher remembers a fellow firefighter saying to him two days after 9/11. They were at Ground Zero, trying to dig out buried trucks, looking for survivors. That night, he "was overcome," he said, and taken to the hospital unconscious. Though he was soon back at work and sad to have to retire from FDNY in 2003, the experience left lasting marks.

Flugmacher’s grandson, Noah Tanner, wears the coat and hat from his 9/11 uniform, which was marred by the harsh conditions at Ground Zero. (Courtesy Jessica Tanner)

The retired firefighter spends time with his grandchildren, Noah and Harper, in 2021. (Courtesy Jessica Tanner)