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Survivors of Sept. 11, 2001 share stories, encourage acts of kindness to bring back togetherness

The #PayitForward911 campaign is a tradition of performing random acts of kindness for strangers and encouraging them to do the same.

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Sept. 11, 2001 was one of the darkest days in U.S. history.

But it was also a moment that united the country as people stepped up to help others.

Twenty years later, there's a nationwide effort to bring back that sense of togetherness, one small act at a time.

Kathy Dillaber holds reminders of her sister Patricia — baby pictures, family photos, a lifetime of memories captured before Sept. 11, 2001 — close to her heart.

When terrorists crashed a hijacked plane into the Pentagon that day, both sisters were working inside. Dillaber escaped, but Patty never made it out.

Patty's name is now among those engraved at the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial, a place where Dillaber keeps her sister's story alive.

"A bunch of family members got together and decided we needed to build a memorial in honor of those that were lost," Dillaber said.

Sept. 11 is a day also etched into Kevin Tuerff's mind. He was flying from Paris to New
York that day when his plane was re-routed to Gander.

"I didn't know if Gander was in Iceland or Canada, but I soon found out it was one of the most magical places on earth," Tuerff said.

Tuerff said the small town in Canada welcomed thousands of stranded passengers with open arms.

"If they wanted, they could have sent thoughts and prayers. If they wanted, they could have sent some pizza boxes out to the planes," Tuerff said.

Instead, the community invited people in — some even allowed strangers to take a shower in their homes.

That compassion not only inspired a Broadway musical but Tuerff's nationwide "Pay It Forward 9/11" campaign, which is a tradition of performing random acts of kindness for strangers and encouraging them to do the same.

"We hope that it will help create a ripple effect," Tuerff said.

It seems to be paying off, based on a website that tracks the good deeds across the country, each heart on the map representing a life or lives touched by an act of kindness.

"Here we are 20 years later, many have forgotten the lost souls who have died and many of us are not united," Tuerff said.

Those acts of kindness, memorials and mementos serve as reminders of the helpers and heroes of Sept. 11, 2001 and a time that Dillaber says shouldn't be forgotten.

"That was a time when the country pulled together — we were one," she said. "Everybody helped each other. I hope we get back to that day."

This year's goal for the Pay It Forward 9/11 initiative is to reach 20,000 good deeds by Sept. 11. Anyone who takes part is encouraged to post their random act of kindness online and use the hashtag #PayItForward911.