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?i see daddy in the clouds. i can see him?

AIDAN FONTANA last saw his father two years ago. Dave was in Aidan's bedroom, sitting on a rocking chair that he had made for his son out of branches brought down by a winter storm. He did not say much, but it was good to have him there.

india Updated: Sep 12, 2006 13:39 IST

Growing up with sorrow
AIDAN FONTANA last saw his father two years ago. Dave was in Aidan's bedroom, sitting on a rocking chair that he had made for his son out of branches brought down by a winter storm. He did not say much, but it was good to have him there.

In the early days, Aidan used to see Dave and his friends quite often. There was the angel who sat on his bed with wings that emerged from his firefighter's clothes. Or the time when Aidan looked out of the window of a plane and shouted: "I see Daddy on the clouds! I can see him!"

But that was when Aidan was just five and the events of September 11, 2001 were still raw. Five years on, his father's appearances have trailed off. Aidan no longer takes them literally, though he does remember them fondly. "Even though I know it is not real, it is still cool to see him."

Aidan -- the only child of one of the 343 firefighters who died trying to save others when the twin towers collapsed -- is an unwilling member of a macabre club: the almost 3,000 boys and girls who lost a parent that day.

As the anniversary approached, Aidan and all the other children of 9/11, together with their remaining parents, must have been again overwhelmed by the reality of their bereavement.

The clamour started with two 9/11 films in the cinemas and television advertisements for gold-plated Ground Zero medallions.

The anniversary fever underlined both what the children have lost and their special status. Aidan's mother Marian said: "I often wonder how odd it will be for Aidan and all the children of 9/11 to have the site where their parents were murdered the most popular image in modern history.”

She is president of the 9/11 Families Association, which campaigns on issues of concern to bereaved families. Though she has tried to shield Aidan from images of the burning towers, she thinks the uniqueness of what happened five years ago is now a core part of him.

"It seared itself into his mind. It is part of his consciousness because of the very public nature of it." That public nature has had another unexpected result: the 9/11 children have been more thoroughly studied and the impact of the trauma more deeply analysed than in any previous disaster. Professor Claude Chemtob has led a team at the Mount Sinai school of medicine in New York that has calculated in the absence of official statistics that 2,752 children under 18 at the time of the attacks lost a parent. Most of the children - 86 per cent -- lost fathers, and most lived in New York or New Jersey. Their average age was eight.

Dr Thomas Demaria has tracked the progress of 350 bereaved families, including 750 children, since the attacks. He runs the WTC Family Centre of South Nassau Communities hospital. Its walls are lined with messages from children to their fathers.

A message signed "the Princess Amy" says: "Dear Dad, I love you. I try so hard to make you proud. I wish you were here to share it."

"Daddy," says another, "seeing the new Star Wars movie wasn't the same without you." "Daddy, how is your time in heaven?" says a third.

In the art room, children have painted what they miss most about their parent. There are two matchstick people on a boat, one labelled "Dad" the other "Me". In another picture two figures, their arms outstretched like crucifixes, stand as a baseball flies between them.

Some of the paintings are darker. In one, a boy is depicted standing alongside a group of five other children, with a thick black line separating them. "I feel better on my own," the eight-year-old artist explained.  Dr Demaria has taken the emotional temperature of the children over the years.

In the days after the attacks he noticed a numbness among many of the children, which over time was replaced by expressions of anger: toys would be smashed, dolls run over with toy trucks, brick towers knocked over.

Many children displayed separation anxiety - they could not bear to be out of the sight of their remaining parent. Others would phone their father's mobile phone and insist, on hearing the voicemail message, he was still alive.

Aidan is not without his emotional scars too. For months after the event he had nightmares. He dreamed once that he saw his father in a supermarket with smiling faces all around him and then his father turned on him and chased him.

Five years on, Aidan shows an acute interest in anything about the attacks. He has read parts of the 9/11 Commission report and learned about Al Qaeda. "It is dumb that they did what they did over religion."

Three weeks ago, he retrieved all his father's belongings from the cellar, and he now has them proudly displayed in his bedroom.

There is a framed certificate honouring Dave for the rescue work he did in a Texan flood disaster, tins of firefighting badges that he used to collect and sea shells gathered from his summers as a life guard. "I thought it would be cool to have his things out, so that when I think of my Dad I can look at them," Aidan said.