Ceremonies in New York, Pennsylvania and at Pentagon mark the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks
Some wept. Some held photos of loved ones At 8:46am, precisely two decades after a passenger plane became a new and deadly weapon here, all fell silent in remembrance.
Families of the victims gathered at the 9/11 memorial plaza in New York on Saturday to mark the 20th anniversary of terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people and helped shape the 21st century.
The sombre ceremony in bright sunshine that was eerily reminiscent of 11 September 2001 was attended by Joe Biden and former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama along with victims’ families and first responders. Many wore face masks because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden had hoped that the milestone anniversary could provide a much-needed moment of national unity after ending the war in Afghanistan, launched to root out al-Qaida, which carried out the attacks. But anger is still raw over the the chaotic withdrawal and return to power of the Taliban.
The 9/11 memorial plaza at the former World Trade Center site includes cascading water in the footprints of the twin towers. Mourners placed flowers on the names of the dead inscribed in bronze.
The commemoration began with a tolling bell and a moment of silence. Mike Low, whose daughter was a flight attendant on the airliner that struck the north tower at 8.46am, described an “unbearable sorrow and disbelief” experienced by his family over the past two decades.
“As we recite the names of those we lost my memory goes back to that terrible day when it felt like an evil spectre had descended on our world, but it was also a time when many people acted above and beyond the ordinary,” he said.
Relatives then began to read aloud the names of 2,977 victims, an annual ritual that will last four hours. Rock star Bruce Springsteen, wearing dark suit and black tie, played guitar and performed the song, I’ll See You in My Dreams”.
A woman places flowers as she visits the 9/11 Memorial on the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks in Manhattan, New York City.
A woman places flowers as she visits the 9/11 Memorial on the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks in Manhattan, New York City. Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters
Two decades on, images from 11 September 2001 are vividly imprinted in the memory of some – everyone can remember where they were – but now represent a historical event for an estimated quarter of the US population born after the atrocity.
The national unity in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 now seems elusive in an America where insurrectionists stormed the US Capitol on 6 January and domestic terrorism is deemed a bigger threat than attacks from overseas.
The Guardian view on the 20th anniversary of 9/11: no end in sight
But twenty years ago in a crystalline blue sky, al-Qaida terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners and turned them into guided missiles, crashing two into the World Trade Center, a symbol of America’s financial might in downtown Manhattan.
People from all over the world were killed in the initial explosions, jumping to their deaths or being pulverized by the collapsing twin towers, an astounding spectacle that horrified audiences on live television.
The hijackers rammed another plane into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the US military near Washington, tearing a hole in its side. A fourth plane – possibly heading towards the US Capitol – crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after its passengers heroically fought back.
A total of 2,977 people were killed – 2,753 of them at what became known as “Ground Zero” in New York – a bigger toll than the “day of infamy” at Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Biden and the first lady, Jill Biden, were due to attend solemn ceremonies at all three sites where hijacked planes crashed to “honor and memorialize the lives lost”, the White House said. They will travel to Shanksville on Saturday afternoon before visiting the Pentagon for a wreath-laying ceremony.
The president was not due to deliver remarks at any of the locations but he released a video on Friday to express his condolences to the loved ones of the victims and highlight the national unity that followed – a diminishing asset in today’s hyper-partisan atmosphere.
He said: “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 … We also saw something all too rare: a true sense of national unity.”
A man with his daughter on his shoulders looks on at the north reflecting pool of the 9/11 Memorial on the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks in Manhattan, New York City.
A man with his daughter on his shoulders looks on at the north reflecting pool of the 9/11 Memorial in Manhattan, New York City. Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters
The day required Biden to pivot from commander-in-chief to consoler-in-chief. He said in the video: “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. And so on this day, Jill and I hold you close in our hearts and send you our love.”
But Biden is still facing congressional investigations into the chaotic departure of US forces from Kabul, less than two weeks ago, that ended America’s longest war. The Taliban are now back in control of Afghanistan, just as they were on 9/11, raising fears that the country could once again become a terrorist hub.
His predecessor, Donald Trump, did not attend the official commemorations and sought to exploit the Afghanistan failure to sow further divisions.
“It was caused by bad planning, incredible weakness and leaders who truly didn’t understand what was happening,” he said in a video message. “This is the 20th year of this war, and should have been a year of victory and honour and strength. Instead Joe BIden and his inept administration surrendered in defeat.”
Trump will reportedly visit the 9/11 memorial on Saturday afternoon, once the ceremony has finished and after Biden has left the city. He also intends to provide commentary at a boxing match in Florida in the evening.
Former president George W Bush, who launched the retaliatory war in Afghanistan in 2001, spoke at a memorial service in Shanksville. At 10.03am the names of the passengers and crew members, who were all killed, were read out.
In his speech Bush lamented America’s current political turmoil and attacked those who threatened – or carried out – violence at home. “We have seen growing evidence that the dangers to our country can come not only across borders but from violence that gathers within. There’s little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home,” he said.
“But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit and it is our continuing duty to confront them.”
In what was effectively a rebuke to fellow Republican Trump and his brand of nativist-populist politics, the 43rd president continued: “A malign force seems at work in our common life that turns every disagreement into an argument, and every argument into a clash of cultures. So much of our politics has become a naked appeal to anger, fear and resentment. That leaves us worried about our nation and our future together.”
Vice-President Kamala Harris walked in long grass to tour the memorial there and told a gathering: “On the days that followed September 11th, 2001, we were all reminded that unity is possible in America. We were reminded, also, that unity is imperative in America. It is essential to our shared prosperity, our national security, and to our standing in the world.”
Obama, who oversaw the killing of the al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden in 2011, said in a statement: “One thing that became clear on 9/11 and has been clear ever since is that America has always been home to heroes who run towards danger in order to do what is right.”
In all there were six moments of silence, marking the times that each tower was struck and the times that each fell, as well as the moment when the Pentagon was attacked, and the time that United 93 crashed in Pennsylvania.
At sunset in New York, 88 powerful lightbulbs will project twin beams four miles into the sky to mirror the shape of the fallen towers. This year buildings throughout Manhattan, including the Empire State Building and the Metropolitan Opera, will join the commemoration by illuminating their own facades in blue.
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