Matthew Bocchi was only in fourth grade when his father died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. That was just the first of a painful series of events in the New Jersey boy’s life.
"In many ways, I like to view that I became a new person on Sept. 12," he told Fox News. "The person I was the day before was never going to be there again."
Bocchi’s grief eventually made him vulnerable to sexual abuse by a family member who’d been talking him through his dad’s death. He would later turn to drugs to cope with his emotional trauma, which led to an arrest.
But Bocchi ultimately leaned on his father’s spirit to get sober. Now he spends his time sharing his experiences, spreading his messages of resilience, inspiration and hope.
‘That was something that would never leave my mind’
Bocchi’s father, John Bocchi, drove into New York City every day to his office on the 105th floor on the north tower of the World Trade Center.
A few minutes after a Boeing 676 crashed into the tower at 8:45 a.m. on Sept. 11, the elder Bocchi called his wife.
"You’re the love of my life, and I love you forever" Bocchi’s father told his wife before the line cut out, the younger Bocchi relayed to Fox News. He was one of the nearly 3,000 victims of the terrorist attacks 21 years ago Sunday.
Bocchi still remembers details from that, though he said the days following were a blur. He remembers cars rushing by on his walk home "almost like a crime scene."
He walked into the living room and saw footage of the twin towers replaying.
"I remember seeing one image of someone falling from the building," Bocchi told Fox News. "And that was something that would never leave my mind."
As he got older, Bocchi wanted to learn more about his father’s death, but his mother didn’t want to talk about it. Neither did his dad’s brothers.
But one uncle, related by marriage, "stepped in and he, with open arms, wanted to talk about it," Bocchi said.
The teenager asked his uncle if he thought his dad was one of the people who jumped from the tower.
"He told me, ‘yeah, he did. He did do that,’" Bocchi told Fox News. He started digging through the pictures and videos of the people falling to the ground every day after school.
"I felt as if I could sort of live his final moments with him by watching that footage," Bocchi said.
Eventually, he saw a graphic image of 9/11 victims’ remains.
"I immediately was like physically sick," Bocchi said.
He called his uncle, who came to his house 30 minutes later. Bocchi was crying and pointing at his computer monitor when his uncle walked in.
"Within, like, five minutes, he just took advantage of me," Bocchi told Fox News.
The sexual abuse continued for about a year, according to Bocchi. He said he believed his uncle’s assertions that it was "normal" and that he’d be the one to face repercussions if he said anything.
"I felt so embarrassed," he said. "I knew I couldn't go to anyone, or I felt at least I couldn't go to anyone."
Bocchi said he carried it with him for the rest of his life.
"What I know now, obviously, is that he was using all this trauma and this hurt that I had, this pain, for his own pleasure," Bocchi told Fox News. "He took advantage of that vulnerability of mine and abused me."
He later learned that his father didn't, in fact, jump from the north tower and is believed to have died in a stairwell.
When Bocchi got to college, he felt alienated.
"People looked at me as like the kid who lost dad in 9/11 and I felt like it was a label that I will always carry with me," Bocchi told Fox News.
He started experimenting with hard drugs, like cocaine, opiates and benzos.
"I remember the feeling that I had," Bocchi said. "All this pain that I carry with me, all this torment, was gone."
"That was something I was going to chase," he continued.
Bocchi abused drugs all through college. He started selling opiates and marijuana, even after getting a job in finance after graduating.
"And then I got arrested," Bocchi told Fox News. "I thought maybe that would be the moment for myself where I would say, ‘okay, enough's enough.’ It wasn’t."
Sky, blue sky
After that, Bocchi felt "stuck."
"I didn’t know which way to go," he said.
One day, Bocchi walked outside and looked up. He was struck by how blue it looked.
"It brought me right back to the morning of 9/11 when my dad passed away," he told Fox News.
Bocchi asked his dad for help and to send a sign. A fly landed on the railing he was leaning on and began acting bizarre. That was all it took. Bocchi immediately went into detox. He spent 30 days in rehab, then joined sober living.
"I knew I had a lot of things that I needed to work on," Bocchi said. "I was working with my sponsor at the time, and I told him what happened to me with my uncle."
He decided to file a police report. His uncle was charged with second degree sexual assault and was sentenced to seven years in prison, Bocchi said.
After getting sober in 2015, Bocchi found his work in finance "miserable." He started sharing his story at high schools, trying to inspire youth to open up about their struggles. He found it rewarding – his only payment for the speaking engagements at the time.
In 2019, he quit his job. The next year, he published "Sway," a book detailing his journey. Now, Bocchi, 30, speaks full time at high schools, colleges and other organizations.
"In this world, not many people are so openly honest about everything they went through," he told Fox News. "I feel as if sharing these parts of my story that are vulnerable … I think it allows people to be open about their own struggles."