Friday September 11, 2020
By Michael Gold
As they memorialize a past tragedy, New Yorkers face another profound and deadly crisis that is not yet over.
The commemoration of the Sept. 11 attacks took place on Friday in the shadow of the pandemic and those who gathered were asked to wear face masks. Hilary Swift for The New York Times
The families, the politicians and the bagpipers gathered once more at ground zero on Friday, as the country paused to remember a national crisis even as it found itself in the midst of another.
The somber rituals held at the Sept. 11 memorial in Lower Manhattan provided an especially poignant resonance in the face of a pandemic that has crippled the country and brought particularly devastating loss to New York City.
And having already transformed so many rhythms of life, the outbreak also altered a collective moment to honor the dead.
Though the names of the victims resounded across the plaza, and the bells tolled across New York as they have in years past, there was no stage in front of those who came to mourn.
Some of America’s most notable politicians were in attendance, including Vice President Mike Pence and Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic candidate for president, but all of them wore masks in addition to their customary memorial ribbons and lapel pins. They exchanged elbow bumps, then distanced themselves six feet apart as they stood for the national anthem.
It has been 19 years since passenger jets hijacked by terrorists slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pa. Nearly 3,000 lives were lost, some 2,700 of them in New York, in the deadliest attack in the country’s history, a blow to America’s psyche.
Now, the United States confronts a far deadlier calamity. During the pandemic, the United States has exceeded the death toll of Sept. 11, 2001, by orders of magnitude. In New York City alone, more than 23,000 people have died of the virus.
In both tragedies, the eyes of the nation turned to New York, looking to see how a city brought to its knees would stagger back to recovery.
“It’s two of the most traumatic things that have ever happened to New York City, and it’s probably changed it forever,” said Diane Massaroli, whose husband, Michael, was killed in the World Trade Center.
“We just have to find a different way to live now,” she said, her hands clutching a bouquet of roses and an old wedding photograph. “Like I had to find a different way to live then.”
Though the city has rebounded significantly from a spring when it was the epicenter of the pandemic and hundreds were dying daily, the crisis has not ended. The threat of Covid-19 still lurks.
Having transformed so many aspects of daily life, the pandemic thus affected one of the city’s most sacred and solemn moments. The family members gathered at the Sept. 11 memorial’s eight-acre site in Lower Manhattan were asked to stay socially distant, and others were discouraged from gathering near the spot known as ground zero.
There was no platform where readers took turns at a microphone, honoring the victims by reciting their names. The list this year was read and recorded in advance, then broadcast online and at the plaza.
Still, politicians and civic leaders gathered, including some who have publicly sparred over the response to the virus, like Mr. Pence, Mr. Biden and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York. Despite their disagreements, they exchanged genial greetings, exhibiting unity at a time more often marked by bitter partisan division.
After exchanging elbow bumps, Vice President Mike Pence, right, and Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic candidate for president, then stood six feet apart for the national anthem. Todd Heisler/The New York Times
Mr. Biden, who has become a kind of avatar of national grief, at one point stopped to comfort a woman in a wheelchair holding a picture of her son, who had died at age 43. The former vice president, who lost his own son to cancer in 2015, took the image and looked it over.
“It never goes away,” he said of grief. The woman, 90, echoed his words.
As is customary for presidential candidates on Sept. 11, Mr. Biden said he would be following tradition and suspending campaigning for the day, including pausing ads in the midst of a bitter contested election. After the memorial in New York, he traveled to Shanksville, Pa., where President Trump and his wife, Melania, were also expected to attend a memorial service.
Also planned for the day was an F-18 jet flyover, an announcement that provoked fierce backlash from city residents shaken from its echoes of a moment when planes were used as deadly weapons. The Department of Defense later canceled it after a request from City Hall, a City Hall spokesman said.
The changes to the ceremony were not without controversy. Last month, the memorial said that it would do away with its annual Tribute in Light, in which two blue beams of light are projected over the city until the dawn of Sept. 12.
The decision, which the memorial said would prevent crowds gathering, was reversed after it provoked outrage from some victims’ relatives, elected leaders and police and firefighter unions.
Still, unhappy with the changes to the ceremony, the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, which honors a firefighter who died while responding to the attack, held a simultaneous memorial just blocks away.
At that event, around 125 relatives of 9/11 victims read the names of those who died on a stage at Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, just blocks away from the Sept. 11 memorial. Attendees wore masks, and those onstage stayed six feet apart.
Mr. Pence and his wife, Karen, also attended that ceremony, where they read biblical passages.
“I pray these ancient words will comfort your loss and ours,” Mr. Pence said, before reading the words from Psalm 23. He then went to pay a visit to Ladder Company 10 and Engine Company 10, the fire units stationed closest to the World Trade Center.
Frank Siller, the brother of Stephen Siller and the foundation’s chief executive, said it was emotionally powerful for many victims’ families to say a loved one’s name in front of other attendees.
“They want to tell their family’s story,” Mr. Siller said on Thursday. “And they should be able to tell that story.”
In the months that New York City has grappled with the pandemic, city leaders and elected officials have often invoked 9/11 as a rallying point, citing it as a moment when New Yorkers exhibited tremendous resilience in the face of a devastating crisis.
“People grieved with us, but they also admired New York City in that moment of crisis,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Thursday. “And now we find ourselves in a new and different crisis, and once again, people all over this country, people all over this world are looking at this city with tremendous awe.”
Several historians acknowledged the parallels between the tragedy that befell the city on Sept. 11, 2001, and the persistent crisis that New Yorkers were living through now.
“Everyone in New York knew someone who was killed on 9/11. And everyone in New York now knows somebody who died of Covid-19,” said Louise Mirrer, the president of the New-York Historical Society. “And people were similarly uncertain and terrified.”
Still, historians cautioned against drawing too neat a comparison. Chief among the distinctions, they said, is that the pandemic continues, and we don’t know when it will end.
“We’re not through this crisis yet,” said Mary Marshall Clark, an oral historian who has been interviewing New Yorkers about their experiences during the pandemic. “We’re not sure what the new demands are going to be."
Ms. Clark, the director of Columbia University’s Center for Oral History Research, had helped lead a project to interview New Yorkers about their experiences of 9/11. When the pandemic struck, she and her colleagues embarked on a similar endeavor to document it.
“People are still processing this and what it will mean for them and their families and their safety,” Ms. Clark said.
Matthew Vaz, a professor at the City College of New York, said that the virus, like the 9/11 attack, had thrown the city into a kind of identity crisis.
But the attack on the World Trade Center created a definitive physical scar — a hole in the ground, a space in the skyline — from which the city could rebound and rally around.
The impact of the virus has been more pervasive and systemic, Mr. Vaz said, making the city’s path to recovery less clear.
Yet New York’s history has been filled with adversity confronted and overcome, Ms. Mirrer said.
“So many times, New York has really been on the verge of destruction,” she said. “It’s remarkable to see the city’s resiliency over time.”
Derek M. Norman and Sean Piccoli contributed reporting.