The Youngest Witnesses

Loyan Beausoleil's 2001-02 class at their neighborhood firehouse in Lower Manhattan,
which lost 11 firefighters on Sept. 11, 2001.

Youngest Witnesses project featured on ABC's Good Morning America, Sept. 11, 2009

Book:  Forever After: NYC Teachers on 9/11
DVD:  The Youngest Witnesses

On Sept. 11, 2001, a Lower Manhattan classroom of preschoolers witnessed the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. How are they doing now?

          The Youngest Witnesses, an ongoing project of educator Loyan Beausoleil, M.S.Ed., and photographer Gabe Kirchheimer, has documented the thoughts, feelings and development of a group of young children, then ages 3-5, who directly witnessed the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Through observing and documenting the children's conversations, art and play—involving traumatic issues such as fires, terrorists and bad guys, plane crashes, rescue attempts, death and dying—the authors have charted the children's progress in making sense of the attacks. All the children involved in this project have attended a preschool located less than a mile from Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan.

          Loyan Beausoleil is the director and teacher of the pre-kindergarten class at the small school, which serves the children of New York University faculty members and other downtown professionals, most of whom live within a mile of the WTC site. Beausoleil began recording the fascinating conversations the children in her class were having about September 11 when they returned to school a week later, and continued to transcribe their words throughout the school year. Interviews with their parents—who include actors, artists, musicians and other creative professionals—have added valuable perspective to each child's story. The children's paper artworks and especially block representations of the WTC from the 2001-2002 school year—prolifically and almost compulsively created—were documented and archived. In the summer and fall of 2003, Beausoleil again interviewed the children and parents, and in the spring of 2004 the children were interviewed on video as they viewed the model of the new World Trade Center building displayed at The Center for Architecture on LaGuardia Place. Mirroring the general reaction in New York after 9/11, the children almost unanimously questioned the wisdom of building another tall tower. Their concerns have been captured on the DVD 9/11: The Youngest Witnesses. What has emerged is a portrait of Lower Manhattan children profoundly affected by the attacks.

          Each child has been deeply affected, and several have displayed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Most witnessed the event firsthand, some were evacuated from their homes and all experienced the uncertainty and fear that came from seeing how difficult it was for the adults around them to cope with the situation. These children have changed their view of the world around them, questioning their safety and place within their environment. Some children began to discuss their experiences only months afterward, and many developed psychological problems or phobias, such as fear of elevators, airplanes, being left alone or loud noises.

          Loss of security and innocence is the natural by-product of such an overwhelming experience. The Youngest Witnesses project aims to document how young children so close to this tragedy processed this event through artwork and play; the deep feelings and understanding they demonstrated; and how they continue to communicate this knowledge to their peers and adults.

          Ms. Beausoleil has presented this work at the National Association for the Education of Young Children's annual conferences in November 2002 and November 2003, the Playing for Keeps Conference at Yale University in March 2003, the Kentucky State Conference on Early Childhood Education in June 2004, Wheelock College and other venues.

          Gabe Kirchheimer, a widely published photojournalist, photographed the children in the months after the disaster (which he photographed at the WTC site on Sept. 11). His early photographs of the Youngest Witnesses, with their Twin Towers of blocks and plastic airplanes, have been published in the leading German weekly Stern and the monthly GeoLino

Content and photographs © 2009 Loyan Beausoleil and Gabe Kirchheimer.