New York City Marks 9/11 at a Time of Harrowing Loss

By Michael Gold

As they memorialize a past tragedy, New Yorkers face another profound and deadly crisis that is not yet over.

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Politicians gathered at the Sept. 11 memorial in Lower Manhattan to remember a national crisis on the 19th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.CreditCredit...Hilary Swift for The New York Times
Michael Gold

The mourners entering the plaza wore face masks, and the teary, intimate hugs of years past were replaced by awkwardly choreographed fist bumps. When the bells tolled at 8:46 a.m., marking the moment the first jet smashed into the north tower 19 years ago, those gathered stood at somber attention, trying to draw comfort from neighbors required to stand six feet apart.

The solemn ceremonies held at and near the Sept. 11 memorial in Lower Manhattan on Friday provided a poignant resonance in the face of a pandemic that has crippled the country for months and brought particularly devastating loss to New York City.

Outside the memorial plaza, a widow holding a picture of her husband admitted that the anxiety she normally felt on this anniversary was compounded by her fears over the coronavirus. A woman who lost her cousin when the Twin Towers fell equated the dedication of rescue workers in 2001 with the toil of health care professionals this year.

A retired firefighter said the lingering effects of the virus made him think of the continued ailments suffered by emergency workers who inhaled toxic dust, smoke and fumes at the site of the attack.

Even the notable politicians who attended, including Vice President Mike Pence and Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic candidate for president, made concessions to the current threat. They, too, wore masks, gave no speeches and distanced themselves as they stood among the crowd.

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.

ImageA photo of Nereida De Jesus, who was killed in the South Tower of the World Trade enter, was left at the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan on Friday. 
A photo of Nereida De Jesus, who was killed in the South Tower of the World Trade enter, was left at the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan on Friday. Credit...Todd Heisler/The New York Times

“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 already transformed so many aspects of daily life, the pandemic also injected a note of tension into one of the city’s most sacred commemorations.

Amid concern over gathering, there was no platform where readers took turns at a microphone, honoring the victims by reciting their names. This year, the list was read and recorded in advance, then broadcast online and at the plaza.

Frustrated by the change, the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, which honors a firefighter who died while responding to the attack, decided to hold a simultaneous memorial just blocks away.

When the 9/11 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, its decision was quickly reversed after it provoked outrage from some victims’ families, elected leaders and police and firefighter unions.

Also planned for the day had been an F-18 jet flyover, an announcement that drew fierce backlash from city residents shaken from its echoes of the day when planes were used as deadly weapons. The Department of Defense later canceled the event after a request from City Hall, a City Hall spokesman said.

Still, politicians and civic leaders gathered at the 9/11 memorial in a display of unity at a time more often marked by bitter partisan division. That included Mr. Pence, Mr. Biden and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, who exchanged genial greetings despite their disagreements.

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.Credit...Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Mr. Biden 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, also attended a memorial service.

“Our sacred task, our righteous duty and our solemn pledge is to carry forward the noble legacy of the brave souls who gave their lives for us 19 years ago,” Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Pence and his wife, Karen, also appeared at the ceremony held by the Tunnel to Towers Foundation at Zuccotti Park, where around 125 relatives of 9/11 victims read the names of those who died on a stage, sharing emotional messages to those they lost.

As she took her turn reading names, Sue Levy, whose nephew, Jason Cayne, was killed in the attack, thanked police and firefighters for their sacrifices on Sept. 11. Then, she thanked the emergency responders and frontline workers who have responded to the pandemic.

Ms. Levy, a nurse who lives in New Jersey, said later that she thought the two calamities were remarkably similar.

“Family members were just snatched away from you,” Ms. Levy said.

Mr. Pence and his wife, Karen, read biblical passages during the ceremony.

“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 and that were among first to respond to the attack.

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.

Fewer people attended this year’s ceremony as organizers tried to discourage a large gathering because of public health concerns. Credit...Todd Heisler/The New York Times

“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.