9/11 anniversary plans cut back amid Covid-19 concerns
This year’s 9/11 anniversary commemoration has had to be cut back due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The 19th anniversary of the terror attacks will be marked by duelling ceremonies at the September 11 memorial plaza and a corner near the World Trade Centre, reflecting a divide over the memorial’s decision to suspend the tradition of relatives reading victims’ names in person.
Vice President Mike Pence is expected to be at both remembrances in New York and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden at the observance on the memorial plaza.
President Donald Trump and Biden will both attend the Flight 93 National Memorial in Pennsylvania – at different times. Trump will speak at a morning ceremony and Biden will pay his respects in the afternoon.
In New York, the double blue beams of light that represent the twin towers were nearly cancelled because of the pandemic, until an uproar restored the tribute. The Fire Department says people should skip observances of the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people, citing the pandemic as the reason.
Whilst some families of the victims say they understand the ground zero observation had to change due to the pandemic, others say the commitment to “Never Forget” is fading.
“It’s another smack in the face,” says Jim Riches, who lost his son Jimmy, a firefighter.
Riches is staying home on the anniversary for the first time because he doesn’t want to risk catching the coronavirus after a prior illness. But says he thinks others should have the option of reciting the names of the dead on the memorial plaza, instead of listening to a recording.
Memorial leaders wanted to avoid close contact among readers, who are usually paired at the podium. But Riches feels like 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 changes this year as an effort to ensure victims’ relatives feel comfortable attending. He mother – who hasn’t left home since March due to health issues – is especially worried about the virus but is still planning to attend to honour her son John.
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. She says the changes were only motivated by a public health emergency.
“Who expected COVID-19? … It was completely unforeseen. As was 9/11,” she said.
The Flight 93 memorial is trimming its usual 90-minute ceremony, partly removing musical interludes. Memorial spokeswoman Katherine Cordek said victims’ names would be read out but by one person instead of multiple family members.
The Pentagon’s ceremony will be conducted by military leaders without the victims’ families in attendance, and the names of the victims will be recited via a recording. Victims’ relatives will be able to visit the Pentagon’s memorial in small groups later Friday.
Other memorial events
In New York – which was once the coronavirus hotspot – leaders of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum said their plan for a no-reading ceremony ensures coronavirus precautions are met and 9/11 families’ attachment to being at ground zero on the anniversary honours the families of the victims.
But another 9/11-related organisation – the Stephen Stiller Tunnel to Towers Foundation – organised its own ceremony nearby, allowing for relatives to 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.
Tensions over the light tribute
Tensions flared when the memorial announced last month it was cancelling the Tribute in Light – twin blue beams that shine into the night sky over lower Manhattan. While there is no official gathering to view the lights, the memorial said the virus posed a risk to the installation crew.
The cancellation angered some victims’ relatives, police and fire unions and politicians, who said construction sites around the city had reopened months earlier. New York’s Governor and its former mayor stepped in to keep the memorial-sponsored lights on.
The memorial’s moves have some relatives of the 9/11 victims wondering 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 attended every ground zero ceremony and said it means a lot to hear to read names and say a few words about her brother. But says she thinks the memorial was right to drop the live-name reading this year. The virus has her concerned and this will be the first time she does not 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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