Scars remain in the family of a September 11 victim 20 years later


Brittany Fisher

Jessica Leigh Sachs is recognized on the North Tower memorial at ground zero in New York City, New York.

Michael J. Collins and Shane Stryker

Stephen and Karen Sachs will never forget the day that they lost their daughter.

Jessica Leigh Sachs was 23 years old when she boarded American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston on Sept. 11, 2001.

“Jessica was ready to go when 9/11 happened. She loved the Lord,” Karen said. “She was a good Christian young woman.”

A recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Jessica worked at PricewaterhouseCoopers as an accountant while studying to receive her certified public accountant license.

Jessica’s parents remember how busy Jessica’s life was at the time. On weekdays, she rode the train into Boston for work then returned home.

“She loved it because Mom did her wash,” Stephen said. “I made her supper, and then she’d study till bedtime.”

Her Saturdays were spent studying for CPA exams and her Sundays were spent in church. Karen recalled that Jessica was passionate about her religion and life.

Jessica Leigh Sach’s senior class photo

“If you said to her ‘well no, you can’t do that,’ she would immediately come back with ‘why?’. She didn’t accept the standards from her religious standpoint, she lived for Christ,” Karen said.

Sept. 11 was Jessica’s first time flying on business to Los Angeles for PricewaterhouseCoopers after about 9 months of employment.

“We were at the beach camping on 9/11, and she was at home,” Karen said.

“To this day, I regret that we didn’t go home the night before, but I thought ‘she’s 23 years old, if she can get to that point, she can get on a plane.’”

Stephen and Karen spoke to Jessica briefly before her flight and went out for a walk along the beach.

“There was a man sitting over on the rocks, and we heard this craziness from his radio,” Karen said. “This plane hit the World Trade towers, and I thought well, Jessica’s airplane wouldn’t have gone that way.”

Stephen and Karen went back to where they were staying to check the television.

“When we got back there, we found out that it was a plane that had left Boston at the exact same time [Jessica] was supposed to leave Boston,” Karen said. “And then they said the flight number, ‘American Airlines Flight 11.’ We knew we lost our daughter, and I think I just started screaming.”

The couple returned home in a state of shock. The passionate, faithful young woman they’d raised was gone without warning. 

“As we sat in the car that day coming home from the beach, Karen said the only blessing we have is we know where she is,” Stephen said. “It’s not something we would question.”

They lived off donations from their friends, church and community while they mourned the loss of their daughter and reckoned with the daunting task of carrying on.

“For the next several weeks, it was like we usually weren’t half there,” Karen said. “I guess we took a minute at a time, it wasn’t like we could think ‘okay, we’ve got to do this.’”

The couple found some semblance of structure and understanding among other grieving families. They attended support groups set up for trauma related to the attacks.

“We were with other people who understood when you said something like, ‘I think I’m going crazy because…’ No, they were experiencing the same thing,” Karen said. “And I think knowing that there were other people going through and feeling the same feelings that we had, that was what helped us.”

With the help of group therapy, the misery and confusion they felt gave way to a deeper sense of compassion and a belief that Jessica would want them to be happy.

“I don’t know where we were going or what we were doing, but we laughed, and I thought, ‘oh my goodness, how can we be laughing? How can we do that, Jessica only died a short while ago?’” Karen said. “But I guess we came to a realization that life goes on. Jessica would have wanted our life to go on, and she would have wanted us to laugh and to do things, but it took a while.”

Stephen and Karen continue to grieve for Jessica 20 years later, but the pain is different now.

“Do we hurt the way we did 19 and a half years ago? No… Nothing goes away. [Karen] still says ‘Why?’ There truly is something missing,” Stephen said. “There’s a hole in everyone’s heart that lost somebody that day, but you get the scar, just like you do if you cut yourself. It heals over, but it’s like the scar never goes away.”

The decades-long healing process has taught Karen and Stephen what’s really important: family and faith. They hope others can find hope and wisdom in Jessica’s life.

You’re young people today, you’re in college. You’re looking to what’s next,” Stephen said. “But live today the best you can, because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”