NEW YORK/SHANKSVILLE, Pennsylvania (Reuters) – President Donald Trump and his Democratic opponent Joe Biden separately commemorated the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on Friday, taking a pause from campaigning to honor the almost 3,000 victims killed in the single-most deadliest assault on U.S. soil.
Biden participated in a solemn morning memorial ceremony in New York, where al Qaeda operatives destroyed the World Trade Center with two hijacked jets. Trump began the day in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where passengers crashed a hijacked plane believed to have been headed to the U.S. Capitol or White House.
Biden and Vice President Mike Pence, both masked, bumped elbows in greeting at the New York ceremony, one of the many ways the anniversary ceremony has been changed by the coronavirus pandemic. Pence read a biblical verse while Biden made no remarks.
About 200 people including Governor Andrew Cuomo and U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer attended that ceremony, where family members in pre-recorded videos read the names of the more than 2,600 people killed when two hijacked jets slammed into the Twin Towers. A third hit the Pentagon.
A similar memorial ceremony was held at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, where people sat socially distanced on folding chairs near the site that Flight 93 went down.
“The only thing that stood between the enemy and a deadly strike at the heart of American democracy was the courage and resolve of 40 men and women – the amazing passengers and crew of Flight 93,” Trump told the crowd. “America will never relent in pursuing terrorists that threaten our people.”
He noted the U.S. killings of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2019 and of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in January, but made no mention of the 2011 killing of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden under President Barack Obama and Vice President Biden.
Trump, his wife Melania, and family members of one of the flight attendants on Flight 93 took part in a wreath laying ceremony in front of the wall of names of those that were killed. Earlier, all 40 names of the passengers and crew members were read aloud, followed by the ringing of bells of remembrance.
Biden arrived in Shanksville hours later, his path from the airport to the memorial site lined with houses sporting flags in support of Trump.
Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 and the state is considered crucial if he is to be reelected to a second term.
But Biden, as Trump did, eschewed politics for the moment, speaking with three families of passengers on Flight 93. He later visited a local fire station, delivering baked goods and beer.
“One of the marks of being an American is understanding there’s some things that are bigger and more important than yourself,” he said at the memorial site with several hundred spectators watching from afar.
‘WE’VE HAD A LOT OF PEOPLE DIE’
In New York City, the annual memorial ceremony took on a different look and feel amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 191,000 Americans.
The ruins of the shattered World Trade Center have since been replaced by a glittering $25 billion complex that includes three skyscrapers, a museum and the memorial with the goal that it would be again be an international hub of commerce.
But the pandemic has rendered it somewhat of a ghost town, adding an eerie quality to the commemoration of the attack, with office workers staying home and tourists avoiding the memorial site.
While the memorial was scaled back due to virus concerns, some of the same traditions were observed, such as the ringing of bells at the same time each of the towers was struck and then again at the hour they fell.
After organizers of the main commemoration announced they would play pre-recorded videos of family members detailing the names of the victims, the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation committed to a live reading at a separate site near Ground Zero.
Another tradition, the twin beams of light honoring each of the Twin Towers, will go ahead Friday evening after earlier discussion of cancelling it to prevent crowds gathering.
Nicole Vilardo was at the Ground Zero ceremony to remember her father, Joseph Vilardo, who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald and was 42 when he was killed.
“It was a little bit harder to get in this year,” she said as her four-year old son and 20-month-old daughter squirmed in a stroller.
Vilardo works as a cancer surgeon at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, one of the worst hit at the height of the city’s coronavirus outbreak in March and April. “We had a lot of people die,” she said. The city has lost eight times as many people to the virus as to the 9/11 attacks.
“The thing that is similar is the resiliency of this city,” she said, comparing the two crises. “New York is unstoppable. It’s going to come back. You wake up and New York is here. That was the feeling in 2001 and it’s the same today.”
At St. Paul’s Chapel, built in 1766 and a place of refuge for exhausted firefighters on 9/11, the Rev. Phillip A. Jackson ceremoniously rang the Bell of Hope at 8:46 a.m., the time the first plane hit.
“We lost almost 24,000 of our fellow New Yorkers this year. I don’t know about you, but for me that is a heartbreak and a loss that we will remember forever,” Jackson said before ringing the bell, a gift from the city of London that has been rung on every anniversary since 2002.
Early in the day, at the memorial site, Biden spoke to 90-year-old Maria Fisher, who lost her son in the /11 attacks.
He told her he lost his son, Beau, as well, and lamented, “It never goes away, does it?”
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt, Daniel Trotta and Frank H. McGurty in New York and Jeff Mason in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, additional reporting by Daniel Trotta, Jonathan Allen, Doina Chiacu, John Whitesides, Joseph Ax and Jarrett Renshaw; Writing by James Oliphant; Editing by Scott Malone, Rosalba O’Brien and Diane Craft)