by Louisa Mellor

When Sesame Street’s 33rd season premiered a few months after September 11, 2001, the show’s creators knew they had to acknowledge the tragic terror attacks of that day. The iconic children's show had a reputation for talking honestly to its young audience about difficult subjects, from grief to bullying and divorce to racism. This would be no different.

"It was a devastating time for all of us," Rosemarie Truglio, Sesame Workshop's senior vice president of curriculum and content, recalled. "We felt we needed to do something in response to 9/11, but we knew we had to be very careful, because our viewers are so young, and parents are returning to educational programming as a safe haven for kids."

The key question was how to help preschoolers understand the aftermath of a terrorist attack without scaring them further. Metaphors were the answer.

Rather than depict an attack on the streets of Manhattan, Sesame Street’s creators depicted a kitchen fire breaking out in Hooper’s Store. No flames were shown, only smoke. The sequence advised children on safe behavior when witnessing a fire: to tell a grown-up, evacuate, or “stay low and go” and alert the fire department.

But the real message came in the aftermath of the fire. Sesame Street used its youngest, most vulnerable character, Elmo, to help children through their anxiety. As the firefighters—real life members of the Fire Department of New York—made the store safe again, Elmo was shown shaking and traumatized by the smoke, flashing lights, and strange firefighting equipment. He never wanted to go back to Hooper’s Store again.

But he did, thanks to some patient advice from a friendly FDNY employee named Bill, who gently explained the purpose of his protective clothing and taught Elmo that no matter how scary they might look, firefighters are there to help. An educational visit to the firehouse and a ride on an engine later, and Elmo was back to feeling safe again.

A version of this story ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2021.