New York City’s 19th anniversary memorial of 9/11 attacks will be unlike any other

Deborah Henry remembers cousin Robert McMahon, one of several family members killed on 9-11 at the 18th anniversary of the attack in 2019. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

For each of the past 18 years, thousands have gathered at the World Trade Center site to honor the nearly 3,000 souls who perished in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks — but this year’s memorial will be starkly different.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which has impacted and altered our society in countless ways, will also change how the city reflects on that day of infamy 19 years ago this Friday. The annual morning vigil at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum has been changed to reflect the current crisis, and protect those who gather there from potential infection.

Families of 9/11 victims will again gather at the site this Sept. 11, but for the first time, the program will not include a live reading of the victims’ names. The 9/11 Memorial and Museum will instead play a recording of victims’ names, gathered from the museum’s In Memoriam exhibition, to honor the memories of those lost in the tragedy.

Some have bristled with the change and have insisted that a live reading go on regardless of the pandemic.

The Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to first responders and named for a firefighter lost on 9/11, has organized a live name-reading on Sept. 11 at the corner of Liberty and Church streets. Vice President Mike Pence is expected to participate in the name-reading ceremony, which the Siller Foundation indicated will have 140 masked, socially-distanced participants.

The nonprofit informed the press it will begin their ceremony at 8:30 a.m. — the same start time of the official, live-streamed memorial ceremony from the 9/11 Memorial and Museum at the World Trade Center, a short distance from the footprints of the Twin Towers that collapsed on that tragic morning. 

Families of 9/11 victims will be welcomed to the memorial, but asked to wear masks and practice social distancing to protect themselves from potential COVID-19 infection. As the recording of victims’ names is played, they will be welcome to find their loved one’s names on the reflecting pools, or sit on one of the many benches at the site.

Bells will toll at six observed moments of silence marking the timeline of the attacks: 8:46 a.m., the moment when hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center; 9:02 a.m., when hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 struck the trade center’s South Tower; 9:37 a.m., when hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon; 9:59 a.m., when the South Tower collapsed; 10:02 a.m., when hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania; and 10:29 a.m., when the North Tower collapsed.

Houses of worship across New York City are encouraged to toll their bells at 8:46 a.m. to honor the victims of 9/11.

After the ceremony is completed, family members will be welcomed to tour the 9/11 Memorial Museum, which will reopen fully to the public on Sept. 12 after nearly six months of closure due to the pandemic.

“We understand the disappointment that some within the 9/11 community have expressed with this year’s change,” the museum said in a statement. “Protecting the health and safety of everyone at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum is a great responsibility, and so our decision — as difficult as it was to make — is not to put families, who have already gone through so much, potentially at additional risk, while remaining fully committed to enabling all present to hear the names of their loved ones spoken by family members in the serene and sacred setting of the Memorial.”

Shortly after sunset on Sept. 11, the Tribute in Light will return to the New York City skyline. Twin beams of light, created by floodlights placed near the World Trade Center site, will mark the absence of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. 

The 9/11 Memorial and Museum had initially opted in August to cancel this year’s Tribute in Light display, fearful of the safety of those tasked with assembling it, but reversed course after a public outcry and the development of a safety plan. 

For more information about this year’s 9/11 memorial service in Lower Manhattan, visit 911memorial.org.