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Amid Painful Year, Tearful Tributes Mark 20th Anniversary of 9/11

The Saturday sky over ground zero was a brilliant, cloudless blue, just like that Tuesday morning 20 years ago when hijacked airliners struck and brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

Except this day two decades later was not marked by death and terror but rather by heartfelt remembrances of the 2,753 lives lost at ground zero that day, as loved ones gathered to mourn once again and to mark the 20 years since the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

In groups big and small, they filed quietly in by the thousands to the memorial fountain at the National Sept. 11 Memorial & Museum and gathered at the spot where the World Trade Center’s twin towers once stood.

They honored the departed in a ceremony marked by singing, silence and the traditional reading of the names that lasted four hours into early afternoon.

Many people inserted flowers into the engraved names of the dead.

After the national anthem, there were moments of silence marking the minute each plane hit and each tower collapsed.

Three presidents — President Biden and former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton — attended. They wore blue ribbons and held their hands over their hearts as a procession marched a flag through the memorial, and they stood somberly side by side as the names of the dead were read off by family members and stories and remembrances were shared.

Those who could not enter the memorial event gathered on the perimeter of ground zero and gazed up at the Freedom Tower, which now stands at the location.

Some brought American flags. Others brought handwritten signs and photos in tribute to lost loved ones. Thousands of white ribbons were tied by mourners to the iron fence surrounding St. Paul’s chapel nearby.

There were children, like Ariana and Briana Mendoza, 13, twins from the Bronx whose sister, Dephaney, 22, brought them to the memorial to educate them about the attacks.

“I was only 2 when it happened, but I have learned a lot about it, and now I am teaching them,” Dephaney said. “We take pride in being New Yorkers, and this was an attack on our home.”

There were also older visitors like John Fackre, 76, a U.S. Army veteran from Long Island who served in the 1960s and said: “The horror here in 2001 was worse than anything I saw in Vietnam.”

Wendy Lanski, 51, monitored the helicopters flying overhead as she stood by the Empty Sky Memorial inside Jersey City’s Liberty State Park on Saturday afternoon.

“To you it’s a helicopter, to me it’s suspicious,” she said. “If there is an unexpected loud noise, it doesn’t go away. The PTSD, the health effects, all of that.”

Ms. Lanski was a project manager for Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield on Sept. 11, 2001, and was preparing for a 9 a.m. meeting in her office on the 29th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower, when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into her building. She felt the impact and fled down the stairs.

When she got to the lobby, she heard people shouting at her to run, cover her head and not look up. She saw people jumping and ran through the rubble of the collapsed tower before losing her shoes along the way. She reached the Hudson River and escaped via the New York Waterway Ferry to New Jersey.

On Saturday, she met Armand Pohan, the ferry’s chairman and C.E.O., before a remembrance ceremony that featured Gov. Philip Murphy and Senators Robert Menendez and Cory Booker of New Jersey. Ms. Lanski, who has “9/11/01” and “survivor” tattooed above her right ankle, credited the ferry with saving her life two decades ago.

“I burst into tears,” she said of her meeting with Mr. Pohan. “It was full circle.”

Credit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

Ms. Lanski, who lives in West Orange, N.J., is a secretary on the board of directors for the New Jersey 9/11 Memorial Foundation and works for Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield. In March 2020, she was diagnosed with Covid-19, and she had to breathe through an oxygen mask while hospitalized.

When she beat the virus, Mr. Murphy called her, and before he took the stage on Saturday, she reintroduced herself and shook his hand.

“It just keeps coming,” she said. “If Osama bin Laden didn’t kill me, I’m not dying from a virus. You just keep going. Just because you had a tragedy, it doesn’t stop you from having others.”

At this moment 20 years ago, World Trade Center Building 7, a 47-story building adjacent to the Twin Towers, collapsed after debris falling from neighboring buildings caused it to catch fire.


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I was not a particularly persuadable “Loose Change” viewer — too young, too self-absorbed, more interested in using my computer to play video games than chase down conspiracy theories. But millions of Americans were seduced by the viral documentary film that popularized the Sept. 11 “truther” movement and became a rallying cry for Americans who believed that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were an inside job, perpetrated by the U.S. government against its own citizens.

After watching it, they disappeared down rabbit holes and emerged days or weeks later as, if not full-fledged 9/11 truthers, at least passionate skeptics. They had opinions about obscure topics like nano-thermites and controlled demolition, and they could recite the melting temperatures of various construction materials. Some believed the government was actively involved; others merely thought Bush administration officials knew about the attacks in advance and allowed them to happen.

I recently went back and watched several versions of “Loose Change.” (There are at least five English-language versions in total.) I also spoke to Korey Rowe and Jason Bermas, a producer and editor on the film, along with several experts on the 9/11 truther movement. (The film’s director, Dylan Avery, declined my interview request after concluding that I was writing a “clickbait article that blames a movie that came out 15 years ago for everything wrong with the internet today.”)

What I found, in short, was that 16 years after its release, “Loose Change” is still bizarrely relevant. Its DNA is all over the internet — from TikTok videos about child sex trafficking to Facebook threads about Covid-19 miracle cures — and many of its false claims still get a surprising amount of airtime. (Just last month, the director Spike Lee drew criticism for indulging Sept. 11 conspiracy theories in a new HBO documentary series.) The film’s message that people could discover the truth about the attacks for themselves also became a core tactic for groups like QAnon and the anti-vaccine crowd, which urge their followers to ignore the experts and “do their own research” online.

The memorial at Tobay Beach on Long Island is inscribed with the names of local residents who died on Sept. 11.
Credit…Johnny Milano for The New York Times

On Tobay Beach in Massapequa, N.Y., is a grotto, inscribed with the names of Town of Oyster Bay residents who died on 9/11. It was placed on the bay side of this barrier island because visitors have a direct line of sight to the spot where the World Trade Center towers once stood.

The names on the wall reflect who lived in that part of Nassau County 20 years ago: members of the New York Police Department and the Fire Department alongside those in financial services who worked in the World Trade Center.

Roughly 50 members of the Long Island chapter of the Sworn Guns Law Enforcement Motorcycle Club came to the memorial Saturday to say a collective prayer. Some bikers stared at the wall, while others turned toward the bay and stared up at the sky, as blue as it had been on Sept. 11, 2001.

The bikers then moved to the tiki bar at Surf Shack Flip Flop Coastal Kitchen, about 200 feet from the memorial, and raised beer cans and shot glasses to, in the words of the club’s founder, Chris Bottcher, “the collective memory.”

Mr. Bottcher, 47, of Manorville, N.Y., who retired from the Police Department in 2018, was at the South Tower when it fell. Every year he and his fellow bikers ride on the anniversary to a 9/11 memorial, and this year, the club decided to return to Tobay Beach.

He said he was determined to teach his children about the events of 9/11 through his own recollection, as well as the stories of his fellow law enforcement officers who were at ground zero that day.

“I would like people to remember how police officers, firefighters and first responders were treated with dignity and respect thereafter, and I think a lot of that has gone away,” Mr. Bottcher said.

Hillary Clinton spoke at a ceremony for restaurant workers who died on Sept. 11.
Credit…Brittainy Newman for The New York Times

Survivors, labor leaders and politicians came together on Saturday afternoon to commemorate the 73 employees of a World Trade Center restaurant who died on 9/11, and to call for improved conditions in the service industry nationwide.

The ceremony was as much a rally for workers’ rights as a solemn memorial for those who died at Windows on the World, which occupied the top floors of the North Tower.

“On 9/11 I lost three precious things,” said Fekkak Mamdouh, who worked at Windows on the World and is now senior director for One Fair Wage, the advocacy group that hosted the event.

“I lost my brothers and sisters that work with me. I lost my sense of security and safety as an Arab Muslim,” he said, “and I lost a good paying job.”

He and others criticized the $2.13 federal minimum wage for tipped workers — the same rate that existed in 2001 — calling it “subminimum.” (Federal law requires that tipped workers receive at least $7.25 an hour, but up to $5.12 of it can come from tips, leaving the employer to pay as little as $2.13.)

“We’ve heard the phrase ‘essential worker’ so often in the last year and a half, and we are truly going to recognize that this work is essential,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York. “We must do much more than words.”

Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, echoed that sentiment.

“Coming here gives me strength to keep pushing one fair wage until we get it done in the United States Congress,” Mr. Schumer said. “When we make your lives better, we make New York better, we make America better.”

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton thanked the service workers and advocates for “taking your grief and your loss and turning it into this movement,” and urged them to “keep going.”

Credit…Brittainy Newman for The New York Times

Mr. Mamdouh and other former Windows on the World employees lit 20 candles and read aloud the names of the colleagues they lost.

Tez Termulo Boiz said she started working at Windows on the World as a college junior and essentially grew up there.

“When you hit something like the 20th, it really becomes a much bigger event, and reminding you what you lost,” said Ms. Boiz, who now works in finance and lives in New Jersey.

She had an even more basic request than a living wage: kindness.

“Don’t deny a tip. Don’t berate your server,” she said. “Be a decent human. That’s all we ask.”

As part of a Sept. 11 memorial ceremony at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., five young men took the U.S. Army Oath of Service. Among them was Patrick Franks, who was celebrating his 24th birthday and fulfilling a lifelong dream of joining the military.

“I’ve always wanted to serve my country,” he said. “That’s the best way I can help the most people.”

Mr. Franks recalled his fourth birthday in 2001. His planned celebration at Disneyland was canceled as news of the terrorist attacks spread and the park closed, so his mother organized a small party with friends in her backyard. The children laughed and played, unaware of the tragedy, while the adults tried to process the events of the day.

Twenty years later, Mr. Franks and his peers were the stars of Saturday’s memorial ceremony, receiving a huge ovation after they were sworn in. Mr. Franks’ father, also named Patrick, described his son as “a natural warrior.” He trains in mixed martial arts, works part-time at a gun range, and grew up hearing World War II stories from his grandfather, who was in the Marines.

Still, Mr. Franks acknowledged being scared of heights, airplanes and the whole idea of boot camp.

“Oh, I’m terrified,” he said with a smile. “But you’ve got to do it.”

The ceremony began with a procession of cars, trucks, motorcycles, helicopters and a flatbed truck carrying 23 tons of World Trade Center wreckage.

Don Barnes, the sheriff of Orange County, noted the bravery of emergency workers and soldiers in the days and years after Sept. 11. He reminded the crowd of the promise to never forget.

“As your sheriff, I am worried we are reverting to a Sept. 10, 2001, mentality,” he said. “We’ve forgotten the lessons of that day.”

President Biden began his day at ground zero, flew to Pennsylvania to visit the Flight 93 memorial and then traveled to the Pentagon. Now he is heading to Delaware for the rest of the weekend.

Gov. Kathy Hochul, center, during the singing of the national anthem at the National 9/11 Memorial & Museum in New York on Saturday.
Credit…Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

During her first commemoration of the Sept. 11 attacks as governor, Kathy Hochul spent time with the families of victims at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in Lower Manhattan, attended a Fire Department Mass and paid tribute to the New York National Guard.

It had been an “emotionally draining day,” she acknowledged as she spoke to the Guard members at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center — and, she said, a remarkable and humbling reminder of the profound loss 20 years ago.

“We all have to remember that behind every number, there’s a person who is loved, who was loved,” said Ms. Hochul, who took office less than a month ago.

The governor announced on Saturday that she had signed bills intended to help provide emergency workers with better access to state benefits after they took part in rescue, recovery and cleanup efforts at the World Trade Center in 2001.

Earlier, she attended the ceremony in Lower Manhattan, along with a number of other current and former elected officials, including Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey. The two of them had lunch nearby and discussed “shared priorities” including the coronavirus pandemic, infrastructure and the economy, Ms. Hochul said on Twitter.

Ms. Hochul then went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Midtown Manhattan, joining firefighters and top officials for a memorial Mass to honor the 343 members of the Fire Department who were killed in the Sept. 11 attacks.

She will later travel to Citi Field in Queens to attend a memorial ceremony being held there before the Mets and Yankees face off in a game on Saturday night.

The wreath-laying ceremony was held at the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial and included a Marine bugler playing taps. President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were joined by Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The New York Police Department’s Technical Assistance Response Unit operating a drone in 2018.

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Since the fall of the World Trade Center, the security apparatus born from the Sept. 11 attack has fundamentally changed the way that New York City’s police department operates, altering its approach to finding and foiling terrorist threats, but also to cracking minor cases.

New Yorkers simply going about their daily lives routinely encounter post-9/11 surveillance tools like facial recognition software, license plate readers or mobile X-ray vans that can see through car doors. Surveillance drones hover above mass demonstrations, and protesters say they have been questioned by antiterrorism officers after marches.

The department’s Intelligence Division, redesigned in 2002 to confront Al Qaeda operatives, now uses antiterror tactics to fight gang violence and street crime.

Policing technology has always advanced along with the world at large. And the police have long used surveillance cameras to find suspects caught on video, publicizing images of people and asking the public for help identifying them.

But both supporters and critics of the shift say it is almost impossible to overstate how profoundly the attacks changed American policing — perhaps most acutely in New York, which lost 23 of its own officers that day, and hundreds more from 9/11-related illnesses in the years since.

Current and former police officials say the tools have been effective in thwarting dozens of would-be attacks. And the department has an obligation, they say, to repurpose its counterterrorism tools for everyday crime fighting.

But others say the prevalence of the Police Department’s technological arsenal subjects ordinary New Yorkers to near-constant surveillance — a burden that falls more heavily on people of color.

President Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and their spouses have arrived outside the Pentagon for a wreath-laying ceremony. A giant American flag is draped on the side of the building.

Saturday, Sept. 15, 2001, outside St. Francis Assisi Church for the burial service of Mychal Judge — a Franciscan friar, priest and chaplain to the New York City Fire Department — who died on Sept. 11 while administering last rites at the World Trade Center. I was not allowed to move inside to photograph dignitaries and speakers: That turned out to be a blessing. The church was full, but a crowd gathered in front of the Engine 1/Ladder 24 firehouse opposite the church, a crew of mostly firefighters, some in old uniforms. At the end of the homily, Mr. Judge’s friend and fellow friar Michael A. Duffy asked everyone to stand, raise their right hands and give Mychal, who had blessed so many people in life and death, a blessing. The crowd in front of the fire house raised their hands and repeated the benediction that he had given to so many others.

Credit…Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

After visiting ground zero and the Flight 93 memorial, President Biden and the first lady, Jill Biden, have landed at Joint Base Andrews near Washington. They are scheduled to attend a ceremony at the Pentagon this afternoon.

The New York City Fire Department Memorial Wall in Lower Manhattan.
Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Everyone who lived through Sept. 11 carries the emotional scars of the day, whether we witnessed the scenes in person or just watched on television.

I still flinch when a low plane flies overhead, and I will never forget the tragedy I witnessed that day. But I try to focus on a small act of kindness that helped me get through it.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was at my desk in The Wall Street Journal’s office building, across the street from the World Trade Center. After the planes hit, our building was evacuated, and the small staff that had come to work early gathered outside. We were dazed and devastated by what was happening around us, but it helped to focus on our jobs, reporting the events of the day.

My assignment was to walk toward the towers to interview people on the ground. I spoke to a woman who worked in the North Tower, who told a harrowing story of feeling the floor buckle when the plane hit her building. She said it felt like she was on a roller coaster as the entire floor rippled in waves, up and down. As she told me of her escape down more than 70 flights of stairs, I heard a strange, guttural rumble.

We were standing about a block or two from the North Tower, and we both turned around slowly toward the noise and saw the tower begin to collapse. Crowds of terrified people were running toward us. It was hard to process what was happening, but it reminded me of a scene from a Godzilla movie. The woman I’d been talking to figured it out before I did. “It’s falling!” she screamed and grabbed my hand. “Run!”

I started to run, but I was wearing heels and could only shuffle. So I kicked off my shoes and ran barefoot.

The massive debris cloud consumed us, and people started scattering, trying to get indoors at nearby buildings. A doorman at one apartment building was waving his arms, beckoning us to seek cover. Once inside, the residents welcomed us into their homes, giving us water to drink and wet towels to wipe away the ash. A woman named Phyllis noticed my bare feet and gave me a pair of Birkenstock sandals that happened to be just the right size. She was visiting from Atlanta, and told me to keep them.

It turned out I needed those shoes. Over the course of the day, as I tried to make my way home, I ended up walking nearly 10 miles.

Mourners have inserted flowers into the engraved names around the memorial fountain.

Credit…Corey Kilgannon for The New York Times

I drove in early to the Boston Globe, listening to WBUR. By the time I pulled onto the Globe’s rooftop parking deck, I knew. Marty Baron, the new-ish top editor, met me at the glass doors that led to the newsroom and said simply: Sit down and start writing the story.

Credit…Andy Kovács

He needed a lead story for an old-fashioned print extra, published that afternoon. I still remember watching the collapses live on the TV above my desk, deleting the lede “The twin towers of the World Trade Center were hit by planes” and typing in, “The twin towers were destroyed.”

From the moment this event started happening in my home city, I was channeling it into journalism: calling my friends who worked nearby to see if they were all right, calling doctor friends who were scrubbed in and waiting for casualties. (Of course none came: People were mostly just scratched up, or dead.)

Within days, I was reporting in New York. Within weeks, in Pakistan. By then I knew my next posting as an international correspondent might not be the one I’d learned Russian for.

But I didn’t know then, at 30, that I would spend most of the next two decades reporting on the reverberations, and that I would spend 10 of them in the Middle East, covering conflicts connected one way or another, if not to the attacks themselves, then to the United States’ response.

That Elizabeth Neuffer, the first Globe reporter on scene at the World Trade Center (and later one of few to report correctly before the Iraq invasion that U.S. troops would not be widely welcomed) would die in Iraq, the first of many friends lost in the wars.

That much of my life would become intertwined with the effort to document these events: My marriage to a fellow war correspondent. My network of colleagues across the region who became beloved and indispensable friends. My children growing from babies to big kids in Beirut. The ripples still changing our whole society — our city, our politics, and especially the other countries that bore by far the brunt of the ensuing deaths. Our world.

President Biden in Shanksville, Pa., on Saturday.
Credit…Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times

Shortly after former President George W. Bush spoke at the Flight 93 memorial in Shanksville, Pa., on Saturday, President Biden arrived to observe a wreath-laying ceremony at the place where, 20 years ago, a plane crashed after brave passengers and crew members confronted the terrorists who had hijacked it.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘I know I should step up.’ It’s another thing to do it,’” Mr. Biden said to a crowd gathered at a volunteer fire department after the ceremony. “That’s genuine heroism.”

Mr. Biden praised Mr. Bush’s speech, a call to unity for Americans divided by their political differences. And as he prepared to leave Shanksville for his last stop at the Pentagon, the president addressed a topic that takes up great deal of his attention: the existential battle he feels is happening in America, and the choice he believes must be made between democracy and the rising influence of authoritarianism.

“Are we going to — in the next four, five, six, 10 years — demonstrate that democracies can work, or not?” he asked.

As president, Mr. Biden is struggling to move on from the far-reaching aftermath of the attacks. The end of the war in Afghanistan has been politically costly for him and has made it difficult for him to pivot to a foreign policy doctrine that positions the country to fight what he sees as more pressing challenges: combating climate change, preparing for future pandemics and keeping pace with China.

Before he left Shanksville, Mr. Biden said that he was appalled at how coarse the political dialogue between Republicans and Democrats had become.

“They think this makes sense for us to be in this kind of thing where you ride down the street and someone has a sign saying ‘F so and so,’” Mr. Biden said, referring to the expletive-laden signs that are often spotted along presidential motorcade routes.

The astronaut Shane Kimbrough spoke from the International Space Station.
Credit…NASA TV, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

An astronaut paid tribute from space on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Shane Kimbrough, a NASA astronaut from expedition 65, remembered the monumental day with remarks from the International Space Station that were shared via Twitter. “To the victims and their families, survivors and first responders: we remember,” he said. “The horrifying images of that day are still present in so many of our minds.”

Mr. Kimbrough remembered that period of time as one where “we saw the strength and resilience of our nation and the incredible support from people all around the world.”

He said the International Space Station is an example of what can be accomplished through global partnership. Mr. Kimbrough spoke from the station’s Japanese Kibo laboratory with an American flag floating in the background.

“Over the last 20 years, we’ve been continuously living together in space while operating among many nations to improve lives for all of us back on Earth,” he said. “People from all over the world and from all walks of life joined together to accomplish the incredible engineering feat of building an International Space Station in low Earth orbit.”

NASA has marked Sept. 11 over the years with ceremonies on Earth, in space and memorials on other planets.

The New York Times was still mainly a print newspaper 20 years ago. At ground zero today, a man holds up a copy from September 12, 2001.

Credit…Corey Kilgannon for The New York Times

The president is on his way back to Washington, where he will attend a wreath ceremony at the Pentagon.

Pedestrians walking by the proposed site for an Islamic center and mosque in Manhattan in 2010.
Credit…Spencer Platt/Getty Images

To the two men who envisioned it, an Egyptian-American real estate developer and an imam long involved in interfaith initiatives, Park51 was a simple but necessary project: a Muslim community center, modeled on the Jewish Community Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, with spaces for worship, athletics and cultural programs, open to the public.

But amid lingering tensions and increased Islamophobia 10 years after 9/11, some politicians and a few families of 9/11 victims opposed the plan to build the center several blocks from the former World Trade Center site and called it a “ground zero mosque.”

Opponents even suggested that the project was intended as a victory marker for Islamic extremists, although Muslims had long been part of the fabric of Lower Manhattan and lacked sufficient space for prayer in the area. The ensuing media melee eventually scuttled the plans.

Last week, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt, apologized in an essay on CNN.com. The group, founded to fight religious bias, had pushed for a different location for the mosque.

Cordoba House, an organization founded by the imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf, welcomed the apology. The developer, Sharif El Gamal, declined to comment. But his sister, Jasmine M. El Gamal, who was a Middle East adviser at the Defense Department during the controversy, had a mixed response on Saturday.

“It takes guts to admit a mistake,” she said. “But the apology has an important missing piece: why the A.D.L. opposed Park51. It was Islamophobia and fear of standing up to it. After 9/11, Muslims were bad for politics.”

Ms. El Gamal, who has written about her experiences as a translator at Guantánamo Bay, said 9/11 was doubly painful since “Muslims were both targeted by extremists and blamed for extremists.”

“We were, and remain, caught between a rock and a hard place,” she said, “used as pawns and proxies to make a greater point or start a larger conflict.”


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