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Lower Manhattan woke early on Saturday to a bright, blue September sky – strikingly similar to that of September 11 2001.
As the dawn broke above New York City, thousands of people, among them Joe and Jill Biden, former mayors and other political figures, were calmly headed to Ground Zero to pay their respects.
As the dignitaries assembled, focus was on the hundreds of firefighters, law enforcement personnel and family members of those who lost loved ones on that day. Looking up to where the towers had once stood, some were tearful; all were solemn.
“Like every year, it’s hurtful. I lost friends in the fire department, in the police department, the guys who went over to Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Ken Corrigan, 54, a firefighter who had responded from the Bronx. “To this day I look up for those towers. To see the way the sky is today – 20 years ago, same thing. It scares me. Scares the living daylights out of me,” he said.
Corrigan recalled that as they raced to the scene, dispatchers had said that all responding units were driving into a war. “A lot of my guys didn’t understand what that meant. They couldn’t fathom what we were going into. I said, ‘Somebody declared war on us.’”
Sean O’Malley, a retired firefighter heading to the memorial to play in a marching band, said simply: “My feelings today are of sadness.” O’Malley was off duty that day and was called in to respond. He was assembling a team of firefighters when the towers came down.
“It just feels like yesterday. It really does. The loss doesn’t get less, and the pain is certainly still there. It doesn’t lessen with years, you just get to shoulder the burden a little easier.”
At 8.46am, the time the first plane struck the North Tower, the crowds fell silent. Most looked skyward toward where the towers once stood. The silence, and sense of respect, felt profound, as if people were reliving memories and trying to grasp for meaning.
Abdelalim Abdelbaky, a street vendor selling gyros and other food just south of the memorial, said his grandfather had been working the cart on the day of the attack. He said he had maintained the cart on the same corner on Liberty Street as a mark of respect.
“He couldn’t believe what he saw. It affected everyone. Muslims, Christian, Jewish. Everybody cried that day. He said to me, he said his customers from the towers were good people. He couldn’t believe that they were lost,” Abdelbaky said.
Many remarked upon the sense that 9/11, for all the loss and tragedy, had brought people together in a way that following crises, including the pandemic, had not. America had been traumatized in the broadest terms and the shock and grief had been universal.
Sitting on steps, a block away from the memorial service, Sarah Routley, a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology at the time of the attacks, said she had come up from Tampa, Florida, to mark the anniversary.
“I went to give blood that day because we thought there might be survivors who needed help. They said, ‘No, we don’t need your blood. There’s no one to give it to. There are no survivors.’ The whole idea was unbelievable. And the dust in the air ... we were literally breathing in the people who died. It’s still shocking.”
The attacks of 9/11, she added, had been later used as justification for a war, and shifted the course of history. “For me personally, it made me question: what was I doing in life? It was hard for anyone who didn’t have a super-serious job, who did anything at all frivolous.
“Today, it is still sad but I think the world has been resilient in a lot of ways. We can take comfort in the resilience of New Yorkers and Americans in general.”