‘It seems like yesterday’: New York remembers the victims of 9/11 at Ground Zero

Family members read the names of the victims in memorial plaza, 20 years on since the tragedy

Richard Hall
In New York City
Saturday 11 September 2021 16:24 BST
Presidents Biden, Obama and Clinton arrive at Ground Zero for New York 9/11 ceremony
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At 8.46am, on a bright Saturday morning not so different from the day this city was changed forever, a crowd of firefighters, police officers, first responders, presidents, mayors and families of the fallen paused in silence.

They stood quietly, at the memorial for the victims of the September 11 attacks in lower Manhattan, to mark the moment that the first plane flew into the World Trade Centre’s north tower on this very spot 20 years ago.

Two decades may have passed but the remembrance of that day is no less painful for the people who lost loved ones.

“In one way it seems like yesterday, another way it seems like an eternity,” Joe Lapointe, a lieutenant in the New York Fire Department, told The Independent as he arrived for the ceremony to honour victims at Ground Zero.

Bagpipes echoed across the plaza as the early morning sun beamed through the gaps of the skyscrapers. Crowds of first responders in ceremonial dress passed through the streets on their way to the site where the Twin Towers once stood. In their place, two fountains cascade into a giant pool around which the victims’ names are displayed. Mourners stood and gazed into the pools and placed flowers.

Lt Lapointe was among the firefighters who had rushed to the towers to rescue those inside. Many of his colleagues did not make it home. He has been coming to these ceremonies for years.

“It’s an important day. It’s a sad day. We all lost a lot of friends and family members. But I think what is so important is that we always have to remember them. We know that at least once a year, the 2,977 members that died that day, their names are going to be read, for their families and for eternity,” he said.

For many, this year’s ceremony has a particular resonance. It comes soon after the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, and with it the end of a war that was launched in response to the 9/11 attacks. Some in attendance at Saturday’s memorial service were children when they lost their parents, in some cases too young to remember them. Among the family members taking part in the traditional reading of the victims’ names were grandchildren who never got to meet their grandparents, nieces and nephews who grew up without knowing their uncles and aunts.

“Many children never got to meet their dad. When people say there’s a loss and you have a young child they are resilient and they bounce back. But talking to people who are 20 now and have no memory of their mother or father, that’s a struggle,” said Lt Lapointe.

As Mary Hickey Truelson listened to the names of the victims being read, she recalled the time three years ago when she read the name of her brother, Brian C Hickey, a firefighter who died on 9/11.

“He was actually covering for someone that day. He wasn’t even supposed to be there. We thought he was coming home but he turned around to help his fellow firemen,” she said.

“He loved being a fireman, he was really passionate about it. He wanted to be a fireman ever since he was a little boy. It was his dream. And we’re all so proud of him and miss him so much. We talk about him every day, he’s part of our conversations every day, Brian Brian Brian.”

For Ms Truelson, the ceremony and the memorial are an important part of remembering her brother.

“I’m grateful that New York remembers all of these people. Look at the ripple effect, all these people still crying over their loss on that awful day.”

In a video released on Friday night ahead of the memorial, President Joe Biden made special mention of the ongoing pain caused by the tragedy.

"It’s so hard. Whether it’s the first year or the 20th, children have grown up without parents and parents have suffered without children," he said.

"No matter how much time has passed, and these commemorations bring everything painfully back, as if you just got the news a few seconds ago,” he added.

Mr Biden, who was joined by former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama at Ground Zero on Saturday, travelled to all three 9/11 memorial sites in one day.

After watching the beginning of the ceremony in New York, he left for Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where United Flight 93 crashed into a field when passengers fought the hijackers for control of the plane. The president will then travel to the Pentagon in Virginia, where hijackers crashed a jet into the building.

Former president George W Bush, America’s leader on 9/11, spoke at the Pennsylvania memorial. Former president Donald Trump also visited New York and met with NYPD officers, where he attacked Mr Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and spoke about the 2020 presidential election. He was due to spend the evening as a ringside commentator at a boxing match in Florida.

The reading of victims’ names continued throughout the morning, punctuated by musical performances. The New York Police Department band played “Hard Times Come Again No More.” Bruce Springsteen took the stage to play “I’ll See You In My Dreams” on an acoustic guitar.

There were moments of silence to mark the key moments of that day throughout the ceremony: at 9.03am when the South Tower was struck; at 9.37am for the Pentagon; at 9.59am when the South Tower fell; at 10.03am when United 93 was brought down in Shanksville, and at 10.28am, when the North Tower fell.

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