CHESAPEAKE, Va. (WAVY) — “There was a big fire in the city, so please pray.” Those were the first words Kayla Arestivo, 28, remembers hearing regarding the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Arestivo was a third-grader in a Catholic school on Long Island and didn’t think much of the request for prayers at first. She knew her father worked in New York City at the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan, but the thought of him even being hurt never crossed her mind.
“I remember saying to my best friend, ‘My dad is fine,'” Arestivo said. But he wasn’t.
William Fallon, then 38, worked on the 103rd floor of the North tower for Cantor Fitzgerald in the IT department. He was one of nearly 3,000 killed as a result of terrorist attacks and the hijacking of four commercial airliners. Two hit the North and South towers of the World Trade Center, one crashed into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, while the fourth wrecked in a field in Pennsylvania.
Twenty years later, Arestivo now lives on a farm in Virginia. But she can still vividly visualize everything about the Twin Towers that once stood in the concrete jungle of Manhattan. When she was young, she dabbled in modeling and would often go to work with her father.
“I remember everything about those towers,” Arestivo said. “I remember pictures that I would draw for him that he would put on his board, he had a little corkboard. I would draw pictures on his whiteboard. Like I remember the inside of the towers, the elevators, the express elevators … I remember everything.”
She especially remembers the life she said was “wrecked” as long as she was living in the pain of the day the towers fell.
Arestivo says she didn’t know until days after the attack that her father was not coming home. She was picked up from school on 9/11 by her aunts who took her shopping and avoided any media. But it took years for her to learn what actually happened.
She said her mother originally told her that her father probably died in his sleep, knocked unconscious by the smoke. Arestivo said it wasn’t until eight years later she learned some people were still alive when the towers collapsed.
“The safety barrier that [my family] put to try and protect me, I understand. But it was really hard to unpack this mystery of what happened, and traumatic because every time I learned something new it was like ‘how do I adjust to this?'” Arestivo said.
Arestivo is one of many children whose parents’ bodies were never identified following the collapse of the towers. “People don’t understand that I went through a series of different traumas,” Arestivo said. “I don’t know how he passed. This person that went to work and then just vanished. There’s no closure, right?”
For years, Arestivo said she struggled with depression and anger. She said it led to addictions, thoughts of suicide, and the need to go to rehab. But then she went through a program called Teen Challenge that she says helped her begin to heal.
“Terrorists didn’t just want to hurt people that day, they wanted to hurt people for a very long time and leave their mark. And I was letting them,” Arestivo said. “So when I stopped self-destructing and beating myself up for what other people did to me. I realized I could relate to a lot of different people.”
She changed her major in college and ultimately got a master’s degree in counseling. In 2019, she launched a nonprofit called Trails with a Purpose. It aims to help veterans overcome trauma through therapeutic connections with horses.
“If there’s one thing I really know well, it’s how to overcome trauma,” Arestivo said. “It’s just being able to take what happened that day and help other people through their process as well.”
It’s a quality she is told she gets honestly. “From what I’m heard, I’m a lot like my dad,” Arestivo said with a smile
Knowing that her father was a helper has helped her become more at peace with the way he might have died. “The picture that everybody just fell asleep, as I have grown to know more, just doesn’t sit well with me. ‘Cause I have a feeling he was helping people., all the way up until the end,” Arestivo said.
The loss of her father is still something she struggles with from time to time, especially around this time of year. “Extremely painful for everybody, especially marking 20 years and seeing, I think, a lot of people feel discouraged with the current events going on in Afghanistan,” Arestivo said. “They took a blow at us 20 years ago, and now we are hit again 20 years later.”
While Arestivo doesn’t recommend that anyone live in the past, this September 11, she hopes people remember the difference in the way people reacted after the terror attacks. She recalls an atmosphere of people “helping people,” lifting victims’ families and first responders up.
“If we say ‘Never forget,’ I’d like to see the people never forget the unity that we had after that day,” Arestivo said. “That’s what should stick with us: American unity of that day.”
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