Some victims' families are concerned the pandemic is being used as an excuse to allow the memory of their loved ones to fade.
Friday is the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks and tributes marking the event in the US kicked off with a remembrance ceremony at the Pentagon.
The event included a moment of silence to remember victims and the US Flag was unfurled down the side of the Department of Defense's headquarters.
You can watch the ceremony back in the above video player.
Leaders pay tribute
Leaders from across Europe tweeted messages with thoughts for the victims and their families.
"Today we remember all those who died, those who survived, and those who continue to grieve America’s darkest of days," UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
"The terrorist atrocities of 9/11 were an attack on our freedom and democracy, as well as one of our closest allies," wrote leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer.
"Today we remember all those who lost their lives and those affected by that dreadful day. We will always stand with you against extremism and hate."
Effects of coronavirus pandemic
In a year when the coronavirus pandemic has reshaped countless American rituals, even the commemoration of 9/11 was not left unchanged.
The 19th anniversary of the attacks was also observed in two ceremonies at the September 11 memorial plaza and a corner near the World Trade Center, reflecting a divide over the memorial's decision to suspend a cherished tradition of relatives reading victims' names in person.
Vice President Mike Pence was expected at both those remembrances in New York, and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden at the observance on the memorial plaza.
President Donald Trump and Biden both planned to go to the Flight 93 National Memorial in Pennsylvania — at different times. Trump at a morning ceremony, with Biden paying respects in the afternoon.
In New York, the double beams of light that evoke the fallen twin towers were nearly cancelled in the name of virus safety, until an uproar restored the tribute. The Fire Department has cited the virus in urging members to skip observances of the 2001 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people, among them almost 350 firefighters.
Some victims' relatives say they understand the ground zero observance had to change in a year when so much else has. Others fear the pandemic is making plain what they have feared was happening unspoken: that the commitment to “Never Forget” is fading.
COVID-19 still a concern
“It’s another smack in the face," says Jim Riches, who lost his son Jimmy, a firefighter.
The father is staying at home on the anniversary for the first time this year because he doesn’t want to take chances with the coronavirus after a prior illness. But he feels others should have the option of reciting the names of the dead on the memorial plaza, instead of listening to a recording.
Memorial leaders said they wanted to avoid close contact among readers, who are usually paired at the podium. But to Riches, a retired fire battalion chief and frequent critic of the memorial organisation, the decision sounds like an excuse for sidelining the families’ role in commemorating 9/11.
“I wish they wouldn’t forget, but they’re trying to," he says.
But Anthoula Katsimatides sees the differences this year as an effort to ensure victims' relatives feel comfortable attending — including her mother, who hasn't left home since March because health issues make her especially worried about the virus. But she is determined to go in honour of her son John, a bond trader, her daughter said.
While many events have been called off this year, “this wasn’t cancelled. It’s just been changed in such a way where we still get to pay tribute to our loved ones in a respectful and safe way,” said Katsimatides, who's on the memorial board. She says the change wasn't motivated by anything except a public health emergency.
“Who expected COVID-19? ... It was completely unforeseen. As was 9/11,” she said.
This year's plans have been a balancing act at the sites where hijacked planes piloted by al-Qaida terrorists crashed on September 11, 2001 in New York, the Pentagon in Washington DC and a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
The Flight 93 memorial near Shanksville is trimming its usual 90-minute ceremony, partly by eliminating musical interludes. Memorial spokeswoman Katherine Cordek said victims' names would be read, but by one person instead of multiple family members.
Military leaders will conduct the Pentagon's ceremony without victims' families in attendance, and their loved ones' names will be recited by a recording, rather than readers on-site. Victims' relatives can visit the Pentagon's memorial in small groups later Friday.
Rival memorial events
In New York — where the nation’s deadliest coronavirus spike happened early this spring but has since been fairly well contained — leaders of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum said their plan for a no-reading ceremony would honour both virus precautions and 9/11 families’ attachment to being at ground zero on the anniversary.
But another 9/11-related organisation, the Stephen Stiller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, quickly arranged its own simultaneous ceremony nearby, saying victims’ relatives could recite names while keeping a safe distance.
“We need to keep letting America know what happened 19 years ago. And they need to see that emotion of the day, not a recording,” says chairman Frank Siller. He says he may attend both observances to honour the brother he lost, firefighter Stephen.
Meanwhile, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro told current firefighters in a memo last month that the department “strongly recommends” members not participate in 9/11 observances. The department did hold a limited-attendance ceremony on Wednesday to add names to a memorial wall recognizing members who died after exposure to toxins unleashed in the wreckage.
Tensions over light tribute
Tensions over anniversary plans flared anew when the memorial announced last month it was nixing the Tribute in Light, twin blue beams that shine into the night sky over lower Manhattan. While there’s no official gathering to view the lights, the memorial cited virus risks to the installation crew.
The cancellation outraged some victims’ relatives, police and fire unions and politicians, who noted that construction sites around the city were deemed safe to reopen months ago. After the Tunnel to Towers foundation said it would organise the display on its own, New York Govenor Andrew Cuomo and former Mayor Mike Bloomberg, the memorial’s billionaire chairman, stepped in to keep the memorial-sponsored lights on.
Tunnel to Towers is also now stationing lights at the Flight 93 memorial and the Pentagon.
Memorial President Alice Greenwald later said the organisation “should have approached this issue differently.”
Still, the memorial’s moves fanned mistrust among some 9/11 victims’ relatives who wonder how long the name-reading and other observances will continue.
Katismatides, the board member, foresees the ceremony returning to normal next year.
Debra Epps has been to the ground zero ceremony every year. She said it means a lot to her to read names and add a few words in tribute to her brother Christopher, an accountant.
Still, she thinks the memorial was right to forgo the live name-reading this year. The virus has her concerned enough that she's not planning to attend.
“It really is a hard decision to make, but I know that we're still in this pandemic,” said Epps, who works in health care.
“I will remember my brother, no matter what,” she said.
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