On September 11, 2001, 11-year-old Asia S. Cottom left for an exciting trip to California. At the time, Cottom had been selected by National Geographic as one of three sixth-grade students in the Washington, D.C. area to visit the National Marine Sanctuary just off the Channel Islands on the Santa Barbara coast. That morning, she boarded American Airlines Flight 77 alongside fellow students Rodney Dickens and Bernard C. Brown II, accompanied by their teachers and National Geographic Society employees.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, like thousands of other families, the Cottom family needed time to process their heartbreak. Almost 13 years later, they coauthored a beautiful book in her memory titled Asia’s New Wings about the many people Asia touched and inspired during her short but fully lived time on Earth. In it, the young girl’s relatives remember that for an 11-year-old she was always busy, always positive, and always involved in this activity or another.
Nyantee Asherman, senior interpretive guide at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, finds inspiration in the way Cottom’s family remembers her and thinks there are lessons to be learned from how Cottom approached life. “In Asia’s spirit, I see a lesson to cherish those around us and to make use of every moment that we have by appreciating, loving, showing compassion, gaining perspective, and looking outside of ourselves—always exploring and pursuing our curiosity just as Asia did,” says Asherman.
Though it was hard for the Cottom family, they eventually channeled their loss into the people around them, especially the next generation. They established a scholarship program to help children excited about education and science, like their own daughter. And Cottom’s father, Clifton, began to coach and mentor other school-aged girls from the community who he also treated like daughters.
Reflecting further on Asia Cottom’s life and her family’s response to her death, Asherman is encouraged to draw positivity from tragedy. She says, “Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, so many of the lessons of 9/11 have become relevant again. I hope that, like the family of Asia Cottom, we can harness our grief and our pain to propel us toward compassion for, and generosity toward other people.”
By 9/11 Memorial Staff