Darkness on 9/11: Tribute in Light cancellation adds to a more somber tone of 2020 commemoration

Tribute in Light from Liberty State Park, New Jersey
The Tribute in Light will not be illuminated this Sept. 11, 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo via Getty Images)

For nearly 20 years, the Tribute in Light illuminated the New York City skyline on the evening of Sept. 11 to mark the anniversary of that day of infamy in 2001, when terrorists crashed planes into and destroyed the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

But another devastating tragedy that hit New York this year — the COVID-19 pandemic — has forced the tribute’s organizers to cancel this year’s Tribute in Light this Sept. 11, the 19th anniversary of the attacks.

“This incredibly difficult decision was reached in consultation with our partners after concluding the health risks during the pandemic were far too great for the large crew required to produce the annual Tribute in Light,” the National September 11 Memorial said in a statement posted to its website. “We hope to resume this iconic tribute for the 20th anniversary. In a spirit of unity and remembrance, the city will come together for a ‘Tribute in Lights’ initiative to inspire the world and honor the promise to never forget.”

Like most other public events in the age of COVID-19, the tribute will take on a broader, more virtual form this year, according to organizers.

Working with NYC & Company, the tourism organization, the National September 11 Memorial’s “Tribute in Lights” initiative in 2020 will encourage buildings across New York to light up their façades and spires in blue to honor the victims of the 9/11 attacks.

Any building manager or owner wishing to participate in this effort can email [email protected]

The COVID-19 pandemic has also forced changes to the annual 9/11 memorial ceremony at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in Lower Manhattan.

While family members will again be welcomed to visit the footprints of the World Trade Center, the memorial notes on its website that they will need to adhere to social distancing measures to avoid the risk of infection.

More importantly, the reading of the names of 9/11 victims — a custom carried out by the surviving families and friends themselves — will not go on in 2020. Instead, a recording of previous years’ readings will be played during this year’s ceremony.

Aside from these changes, the memorial ceremony will feature the normal traditions of previous commemorations — including moments of silence and bell-tolling to mark the most tragic moments of the attacks.

Middle Village, Queens residents held a memorial vigil in 2017 on the 16th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Tribute in Light can be seen in the background. (File photo by Dean Moses/QNS)

Nearly 3,000 Americans were killed in the coordinated attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and United Airlines Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001. In approximately 102 minutes that morning, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were intentionally struck by hijacked aircraft, setting off a massive office fire that eventually led to the buildings’ collapse.

On March 11, 2002, approximately six months after the attack, the first Tribute in Light appeared on the New York skyline. The twin beams of spotlights pointed into the sky sought to represent the lost World Trade Center towers, and offered hope to a city still reeling and recovering from the devastation. 

During that first lighting, the Tribute in Light was set up just a block away from Ground Zero, where workers were still removing, and combing through the rubble of the World Trade Center in search of victims. The tribute ran for about a month before being dimmed on April 14, 2002; recovery efforts at Ground Zero ended the following month.

The Tribute in Light returned on Sept. 11, 2002 for the first anniversary of the attacks, and has been illuminated every Sept. 11 thereafter. On clear nights, it can be seen for miles around the city, often serving as the backdrop for outdoor memorial vigils held the same evening.

Meanwhile, the 9/11 Memorial remains closed to the public at this time due to capacity restrictions. The museum hopes to reopen the memorial exclusively to the victims’ families during the ceremony this year.