Losing My Dad on 9/11 Made Me the Dad I Am Today

Phil Guza 9/11
Peter Guza, right, with brother Tom and dad Phil, who died on September 11, 2001
Sometimes when Peter Guza is playing with his son Owen, it's not his 1 1/2-year-old he's seeing but a child's version of himself. And joining him in his mind's eye is his dad, Phil Guza. A young Phil Guza. A Phil Guza before the terror attacks on September 11 took him away from his family.

Peter Guza is one of Tuesday's Children, the 3,000-plus kids who lost a parent on 9/11. He was just a college kid doing what kids in college do -- sleeping in -- when he got a phone call that fateful morning. "A friend knew my dad worked in the World Trade Center. He called and told me a plane had flown into the tower." Peter told The Stir last week, "At first I kind of thought he was joking."


Living in a fraternity at Lehigh University, his father's alma mater, Peter turned on the TV and watched the scene in New York City with his frat brothers while he tried to track down his family. He comforted himself at the time with the knowledge that his dad worked on the 105th floor of World Trade Center Two. The first plane hit the World Trade Center One -- the North Tower.

And then the second plane hit the South Tower, where Phil Guza worked. "My feeling really shifted when the second tower was hit," Peter recalls. "My early instinct was, he's on a high floor, he's OK, but ... "

But Peter didn't know. Phone lines were a mess. And he was far from his New Jersey-based family at college in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. When the family did begin to piece things together, it came out that Phil, who worked for Aon Corporation, a re-insurance company that lost 176 employees on 9/11, had called Peter's older brother Tom that morning and left a message. 

"He was up way high and he could see where the plane had hit," Peter explained. "He told him, 'Everything's fine here, back to work.'"

Fifty-four-year-old Phil Guza was last seen in his office at Aon. Working. Still, his youngest son retains an optimism that casts a surprising light on the sadness surrounding the 10-year anniversary.

"When I talk about my dad, I'm usually smiling," Peter says, his voice lifting over the phone as if on cue. "I'm really grateful for the time we had." His oldest brother died in 1992, and that tragedy brought his family closer together, forged bonds that he says gave him the sort of memories with his dad that can't be matched. "My father was far from athletic," he says with a laugh, "but one of my passions was snowboarding." And every year, Phil would head out to the Rocky Mountains with his youngest child so Peter could hit the slopes. Phil would drive off to find something else, something less physical to do, but he never complained.

It's an attitude that passed to his son, a man who has taken the difficult means by which he lost his father in stride -- or as much in stride as one can. When Osama bin Laden died, friends came to slap him five and congratulate him. But Peter Guza said he was at peace. 

"It wasn't that I was celebrating that day ... there was a feeling of satisfaction," he explains. His age may have something to do with it, Guza guesses. He was young enough that on 9/11, he had the benefit of the open mind of a college kid. He knew a Muslim kid, a guy from Pakistan, and that helped shape his outlook going forward. "That piece of the puzzle had enough of an impact on me that I didn't have that feeling that we should go destroy the Middle East," he explains.

Pete Guza Phil Guza
Pete with his dad at his high school graduation
His age also meant that unlike kids who barely remember the parent who gave them life, only to have it snuffed out on 9/11, Peter Guza truly knew the man he'd lost. And he looks at that as one of life's blessings.

He knew his dad enough that when it came time to create a memorial to honor him, he created the Phil Guza Memorial Scholarship, a means to advance Phil's love of math and science. The non-profit awarded its first scholarship in 2010, two more this year, and Peter is getting into the groove both as a fundraiser and spokesman for his cause. He'd always planned to do something, but it was after Owen was born that he decided on something that would fit. Now living in the Boston area where he works for a small biotech firm, Peter Guza tracked down a lawyer and created something tangible to mark the impact his own dad had on his life and the rest of the world. Becoming a dad seems to be just the impetus he needed.

Because when Peter Guza looks at his little boy, he gets to relive what it meant to be Phil Guza's son. "I'm sad he's not here to see him," Peter says quietly. "That's the hardest part for me."


Images via Pete Guza

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