'I had to be here': Despite COVID, hundreds honored 9/11 victims in Manhattan
President Donald Trump marked the 19th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks on Friday in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. (Sept. 11) AP Domestic
NEW YORK – Joanne Barbara had to come back.
She does not fear the roiling emotions that rise inside her when she returns to the former site of the World Trade Center's twin towers each year where her husband, Gerard, 53, a New York City fire chief, perished 19 years ago in the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil.
And on Friday, she did not fear catching COVID-19 in the crowd of victims’ relatives that converges each year at the former Trade Center site for the 9/11 anniversary.
In fact, the pandemic — which has handcuffed so much of life in America and killed nearly 200,000 people — pushed Barbara to leave her Scotch Plains home early Friday and make her way to lower Manhattan to read her husband’s name in the annual memorial service to 9/11 victims.
“I had to come back. I had to be here,” she said, moments after stepping away from a podium where she read two dozen names of victims — including her husband’s. “Regardless of the pandemic, we will never forget.”
What did bother Barbara on Friday was that the traditional reading of victims' names did not take place at the former site of the twin towers, now home to the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum. This time, she recited her husband’s name a block away, under a tent at Zuccotti Park, with fewer than 200 people listening.
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In a decision several weeks ago that reignited a long-simmering dispute over control over the 9/11 legacy, the museum's administration canceled its annual in-person reading of victims’ names at Memorial Park at the twin towers site, claiming that a gathering of hundreds of people might contribute to the spread of COVID-19.
The Museum also canceled the popular “Tribute in Light,” which involves erecting two large spotlights in the days before the 9/11 anniversary to shine beams to the heavens to replicate the Trade Center’s twin towers. On clear evenings, the beams could be seen from miles away and were regarded as a reminder of what was lost 19 years ago, when Islamist militants crashed hijacked commercial jetliners into the towers, the Pentagon and a farm field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
In stepped another group with a solution.
The Tunnel to Towers Foundation offered to set up the lights and organize a reading of victims' names.
“We were crushed when the museum said it would not read names,” said Matthew Mahoney, executive vice president of the foundation, which commemorates the heroic exploits of Stephen Siller, a New York City firefighter who ran in full gear through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to get to the twin towers on the morning of the 9/11 attacks, only to be killed when the towers fell.
The foundation, with the help of New York’s politicians, persuaded the museum to erect the spotlights — but from the roof of a parking garage several blocks away.
After the museum promised only to broadcast a recorded rendition online and at the Memorial Park, the foundation organized its own event where the names would be read in person.
“The names must be read aloud,” Mahoney said.
Joanne Barbara opted for the in-person, live reading.
“I think the museum acted too hastily,” she said.
As for spreading COVID-19 in a crowd, Barbara wasn’t worried. She pointed to recent marches in New York City to protest police brutality.
"For the past 10 weeks, we’ve seen so much destruction and turmoil in the city and COVID pandemic and social distancing didn’t apply,” she said. “So why should it apply to the museum? If people were allowed to ransack the city and our mayor stood by and let it happen, why should we not be in the museum to honor our heroes? It’s a travesty.”
In a brief speech Friday during a break in the reading of victims' names, Siller's brother, Frank, who now runs the foundation, was even more emphatic. Reciting a few names of victims and describing their heroics, Siller repeated what may become a mantra in the ongoing dispute: "Their names must be read out loud."
Such is the new legacy of 9/11. Nineteen years ago, the destruction of the majestic twin towers with a loss of nearly 3,000 people — including almost 400 first responders who rushed to the scene to save lives — galvanized America into a brief respite of unity.
Democrats and Republicans actually cooperated to pass legislation. Residents in all manner of communities turned out for vigils and waved flags. People seemed to sing louder renditions of "America the Beautiful" and the national anthem.
Now that unity is gone.
Politics at play
On Friday, dueling readings competed for crowds of only a few hundred people that were remarkably smaller than previous years.
And then came presidential politics — and its own dueling choreography.
President Donald Trump skipped the New York City event and showed up for a memorial in Shanksville.
Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden showed up for the recorded reading at the Museum and Memorial Plaza in New York, then avoided Trump by journeying to Shanksville in the afternoon.
Vice President Mike Pence stopped at the in-person event at Zuccotti Park where he recited the iconic lines from Psalm 23 — “the Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want." Pence’s wife, Karen, read another famous passage from the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes: “To every thing, there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven.”
As Pence and his wife left the stage, a man shouted, "We love you, Mr. Vice President." Several others chanted, “Four More Years.”
Pence stopped, turned, smiled and waved. He then headed to the Memorial Plaza where he exchanged a COVID-safe elbow bump with Biden, who did not come to the in-person reading.
As he listened to the recorded reading of names at the Memorial Plaza, Biden noticed that Amanda Barreto, 27, of Teaneck, was crying. Barreto lost her godmother and aunt in the 9/11 attacks.
Biden walked over to Barreto, according to an account by the Associated Press.
She said later that Biden “wanted to let me know to keep the faith” and told her “he knows what it means to lose someone." She said she appreciated his comments and would be voting for him this fall.
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Organizers of the in-person reading said they would have welcomed Biden to their event but he never asked to participate. "We would have loved to have him," Mahoney said.
At the same time, some who came to the area to pay their respects to the victims said they were fed up with the fighting that plagued this year's event.
“I know everyone’s dealing with coronavirus problems, but let’s stop and think," said James Mennie, 32, a financial adviser who stopped during his morning walk to snap a photo of the new One World Trade Center tower with his cellphone camera. "This is much broader than a sickness. Our backyard got attacked."
Despite the tension, some of the familiar elements of 9/11 commemorations were nevertheless still part of the day.
A woman carrying a bouquet of red roses and baby’s breath held a sign with a photo of her son as the crowd observed a moment of silence to commemorate the exact moment when one of the hijacked planes struck the twin towers. A daughter reading the name of her father choked up, then announced: “Daddy, never a day goes by where we don’t think about you.” A niece recounted how her lost uncle liked to eat so much that the family nicknamed him “Tugboat.”
Still, this year's commemoration was clearly different. Many stores were shuttered. Crowds were thinner, not just at the readings but in nearby streets, perhaps because police had erected so many steel barriers that it made just crossing the street difficult. O'Hara's pub on Greenwich Street, a magnet for firefighters and other first responders, did not even open its doors.
Artie Brennan, an actor from Manhattan, offered to read this year, in part because he thought that not many people would volunteer.
Brennan, who has appeared on TV in “House of Cards,” lost his brother-in-law, Sean Thomas Lugano, 28, in the attack on the trade center. But as he studied the list of names he was assigned to read, he recognized a friend from his old boyhood neighborhood of Breezy Point, Queens, who also perished.
“It’s an honor to read someone else’s name,” Brennan said as he left the stage. “This becomes so much more personal.”
Robert Felger, 60, a volunteer EMT from Hampton Township in Sussex County, rode his Harley Ultra Classic motorcycle with a group of first responders. But like many who wanted to pay their respects, Felger could not enter the Memorial Plaza and its pools of water that mark the footprints of the twin towers.
Still Felger was glad he came.
"You can't forget," he said. "Never forget."
Sitting in a folding chair nearby, David Smith, a retired New York City fire chief, waited for his turn to read.
Smith rushed to the trade center on the morning of the 9/11 attacks. He kept going back in the following months to search for remains of the 343 firefighters who were killed and others who were lost.
But he had never been to the annual 9/11 memorial ceremony — until this year.
"I'm glad I'm here," Smith said.
Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.