New York City Marks 9/11 at a Time of Harrowing Loss

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The families will come together again to honor their loved ones at the site where their lives were stolen. The flags will be at half-staff, and the bells will toll in New York City as they have in years past, sounding a peal of collective mourning for those killed on one of the darkest days in American history.

Yet the somber, solemn rituals that annually mark a tragedy that brought New York and the nation to its knees will be altered at a time of another crisis — one marked by devastating loss.

It has been 19 years since passenger jets hijacked by terrorists slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pa. Nearly 3,000 lives were lost, some 2,700 of them in New York, in the deadliest attack in the country’s history, a blow to America’s psyche.

Now, the United States confronts a far deadlier calamity. During the coronavirus pandemic, the United States has exceeded the death toll of Sept. 11, 2001, by many orders of magnitude. In New York City alone, more than 23,000 people have died of the virus.

It is a crisis that has not ended. Though the city has fought its way back from a spring when it was the epicenter of the pandemic and hundreds were dying daily, the threat of Covid-19 still lurks.

Having transformed so many aspects of daily life, the pandemic will also affect one of the city’s most sacred and solemn moments. The family members who arrive at the Sept. 11 memorial’s eight-acre site in Lower Manhattan will be required to wear masks and stay socially distant. Everyone else will be discouraged from gathering near the spot known as ground zero.

There will be no platform where dignitaries give speeches, though both Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic presidential nominee, and Vice President Mike Pence are expected to make an appearance. Readers will not take turns at a microphone to recite the names of the victims; the list this year was read and recorded in advance and will be broadcast online and at the plaza.

“We are committed to a live commemoration that will be as beautiful and meaningful as ever, while also protecting the health and well-being of families,” representatives for the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, which organizes the ceremony, said in a statement. “We can and will do both.”

The changes to the ceremony were not without controversy. Last month, the memorial said that it would do away with its annual Tribute in Light, in which two blue beams of light are projected over the city until the dawn of Sept. 12.

The decision, which the memorial said would prevent crowds gathering, was reversed after it provoked outrage from some victims’ relatives, elected leaders and police and firefighter unions.

Still, unhappy with the changes to the ceremony, the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, which honors a firefighter who died while responding to the attack, opted to hold a simultaneous memorial just blocks away.

At that event, around 125 relatives of 9/11 victims will read the names of those who died on a stage at Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan. Attendees will wear masks, and those onstage will stay six feet apart.

Mr. Pence and his wife, Karen, are also expected to attend and read biblical passages.

Frank Siller, the brother of Stephen Siller and the foundation’s chief executive, said it was emotionally powerful for many victims’ families to say a loved one’s name in front of other attendees.

“They want to tell their family’s story,” Mr. Siller said. “And they should be able to tell that story.”

In the months that New York City has grappled with the pandemic, city leaders and elected officials have often invoked 9/11 as a rallying point, citing it as a moment when New Yorkers exhibited tremendous resilience in the face of a devastating crisis.

“People grieved with us, but they also admired New York City in that moment of crisis,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Thursday. “And now we find ourselves in a new and different crisis, and once again, people all over this country, people all over this world are looking at this city with tremendous awe.”

Several historians acknowledged the parallels between the tragedy that befell the city on Sept. 11, 2001, and the persistent crisis that New Yorkers were living through now.

“Everyone in New York knew someone who was killed on 9/11. And everyone in New York now knows somebody who died of Covid-19,” said Louise Mirrer, the president of the New-York Historical Society. “And people were similarly uncertain and terrified.”

Still, historians cautioned against drawing too neat a comparison. Chief among the distinctions, they said, is that the pandemic continues, and we don’t know when it will end.

“We’re not through this crisis yet,” said Mary Marshall Clark, an oral historian who has been interviewing New Yorkers about their experiences during the pandemic. “We’re not sure what the new demands are going to be.”

Ms. Clark, the director of Columbia University’s Center for Oral History Research, had helped lead a project to interview New Yorkers about their experiences of 9/11. When the pandemic struck, she and her colleagues embarked on a similar endeavor to document it.

“People are still processing this and what it will mean for them and their families and their safety,” Ms. Clark said.

Matthew Vaz, a professor at the City College of New York, said that the virus, like the 9/11 attack, had thrown the city into a kind of identity crisis.

But the attack on the World Trade Center created a definitive physical scar — a hole in the ground, a space in the skyline — from which the city could rebound and rally around.

The impact of the virus has been more pervasive and systemic, Mr. Vaz said, making the city’s path to recovery less clear.

Yet New York’s history has been filled with adversity confronted and overcome, Ms. Mirrer said.

“So many times, New York has really been on the verge of destruction,” she said. “It’s remarkable to see the city’s resiliency over time.”

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