Amid a Painful Year, the U.S. Remembers the Deadliest Attack in Its History

ImageMets and Yankees fans honor the memory of 9/11 during their game.
Credit…Johnny Milano for The New York Times

Chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A” began ringing through a capacity crowd at Citi Field as early as 30 minutes before the first pitch of the first Subway Series game between the Mets and Yankees played on an anniversary of Sept. 11. Current members of the teams met on the field for handshakes and hugs before standing intermixed on the two foul lines for the national anthem, which was performed by the New York Police Department’s Police Athletic League Cops & Kids Chorus.

The players and coaches of both the Mets and the Yankees wore hats honoring New York City’s first-responder agencies, especially the Fire Department and the Police Department, echoing the same on-field tribute made by the 2001 Mets team in their first game back home after the Sept. 11 attacks. The Mets wore home white jerseys in the same style as their 2001 predecessors but refashioned with “New York” across the chest in place of “Mets.” For this 20th anniversary, the teams’ managers from 2001, Bobby Valentine of the Mets and Joe Torre of the Yankees, both threw ceremonial first pitches.

More than a dozen players and coaches from that 2001 Mets team were in attendance, escorting agency representatives who participated in the ground zero rescue and recovery efforts. Among them was the Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza, who hit a come-from-behind, game-winning home run for the Mets in the first sporting event in the city after the Sept. 11 attacks. He and others reflected not only on that moment of healing but also on the club-organized efforts in the aftermath of the attacks to collect needed supplies and visit with emergency medical workers.

“Unfortunately, you do have to experience tragedy to see triumph and see courage and bravery,” Piazza said. “And so as much as I’m sad to see and remember the sad events, it’s still uplifting to continue to reflect on the positive stories that did come out of that week.”

Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York and Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president and Democratic nominee for mayor, were in attendance.

Before the game, Mets first baseman Pete Alonso spoke to media members on Zoom while wearing a shirt with the logo and nickname of F.D.N.Y. Engine 319, “The Lone Wolf.” Alonso visited the ground zero site earlier in the day and announced that he was donating the proceeds of a new NFT — a nonfungible token, commemorating his 100th career home run — to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

“It’s not just today that people are suffering,” Alonso said. “People go through those pains and scars every single day of the year.”

The Saturday sky over ground zero was a brilliant, cloudless blue, just like that Tuesday morning 20 years ago when hijacked airliners struck and brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

Except this day two decades later was not marked by death and terror but rather by heartfelt remembrances of the 2,753 lives lost at ground zero that day, as loved ones gathered to mourn once again and to mark the 20 years since the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

In groups big and small, they filed quietly in by the thousands to the memorial fountain at the National Sept. 11 Memorial & Museum and gathered at the spot where the World Trade Center’s twin towers once stood.

They honored the departed in a ceremony marked by singing, silence and the traditional reading of the names that lasted four hours into early afternoon.

Many people inserted flowers into the engraved names of the dead.

After the national anthem, there were moments of silence marking the minute each plane hit and each tower collapsed.

Three presidents — President Biden and former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton — attended. They wore blue ribbons and held their hands over their hearts as a procession marched a flag through the memorial, and they stood somberly side by side as the names of the dead were read off by family members and stories and remembrances were shared.

Those who could not enter the memorial event gathered on the perimeter of ground zero and gazed up at the Freedom Tower, which now stands at the location.

Some brought American flags. Others brought handwritten signs and photos in tribute to lost loved ones. Thousands of white ribbons were tied by mourners to the iron fence surrounding St. Paul’s chapel nearby.

There were children, like Ariana and Briana Mendoza, 13, twins from the Bronx whose sister, Dephaney, 22, brought them to the memorial to educate them about the attacks.

“I was only 2 when it happened, but I have learned a lot about it, and now I am teaching them,” Dephaney said. “We take pride in being New Yorkers, and this was an attack on our home.”

There were also older visitors like John Fackre, 76, a U.S. Army veteran from Long Island who served in the 1960s and said: “The horror here in 2001 was worse than anything I saw in Vietnam.”

Wendy Lanski, 51, monitored the helicopters flying overhead as she stood by the Empty Sky Memorial inside Jersey City’s Liberty State Park on Saturday afternoon.

“To you it’s a helicopter, to me it’s suspicious,” she said. “If there is an unexpected loud noise, it doesn’t go away. The PTSD, the health effects, all of that.”

Ms. Lanski was a project manager for Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield on Sept. 11, 2001, and was preparing for a 9 a.m. meeting in her office on the 29th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower, when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into her building. She felt the impact and fled down the stairs.

When she got to the lobby, she heard people shouting at her to run, cover her head and not look up. She saw people jumping and ran through the rubble of the collapsed tower before losing her shoes along the way. She reached the Hudson River and escaped via the New York Waterway Ferry to New Jersey.

On Saturday, she met Armand Pohan, the ferry’s chairman and C.E.O., before a remembrance ceremony that featured Gov. Philip Murphy and Senators Robert Menendez and Cory Booker of New Jersey. Ms. Lanski, who has “9/11/01” and “survivor” tattooed above her right ankle, credited the ferry with saving her life two decades ago.

“I burst into tears,” she said of her meeting with Mr. Pohan. “It was full circle.”

Credit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

Ms. Lanski, who lives in West Orange, N.J., is a secretary on the board of directors for the New Jersey 9/11 Memorial Foundation and works for Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield. In March 2020, she was diagnosed with Covid-19, and she had to breathe through an oxygen mask while hospitalized.

When she beat the virus, Mr. Murphy called her, and before he took the stage on Saturday, she reintroduced herself and shook his hand.

“It just keeps coming,” she said. “If Osama bin Laden didn’t kill me, I’m not dying from a virus. You just keep going. Just because you had a tragedy, it doesn’t stop you from having others.”

At this moment 20 years ago, World Trade Center Building 7, a 47-story building adjacent to the Twin Towers, collapsed after debris falling from neighboring buildings caused it to catch fire.

I was not a particularly persuadable “Loose Change” viewer — too young, too self-absorbed, more interested in using my computer to play video games than chase down conspiracy theories. But millions of Americans were seduced by the viral documentary film that popularized the Sept. 11 “truther” movement and became a rallying cry for Americans who believed that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were an inside job, perpetrated by the U.S. government against its own citizens.

After watching it, they disappeared down rabbit holes and emerged days or weeks later as, if not full-fledged 9/11 truthers, at least passionate skeptics. They had opinions about obscure topics like nano-thermites and controlled demolition, and they could recite the melting temperatures of various construction materials. Some believed the government was actively involved; others merely thought Bush administration officials knew about the attacks in advance and allowed them to happen.

I recently went back and watched several versions of “Loose Change.” (There are at least five English-language versions in total.) I also spoke to Korey Rowe and Jason Bermas, a producer and editor on the film, along with several experts on the 9/11 truther movement. (The film’s director, Dylan Avery, declined my interview request after concluding that I was writing a “clickbait article that blames a movie that came out 15 years ago for everything wrong with the internet today.”)

What I found, in short, was that 16 years after its release, “Loose Change” is still bizarrely relevant. Its DNA is all over the internet — from TikTok videos about child sex trafficking to Facebook threads about Covid-19 miracle cures — and many of its false claims still get a surprising amount of airtime. (Just last month, the director Spike Lee drew criticism for indulging Sept. 11 conspiracy theories in a new HBO documentary series.) The film’s message that people could discover the truth about the attacks for themselves also became a core tactic for groups like QAnon and the anti-vaccine crowd, which urge their followers to ignore the experts and “do their own research” online.

Credit…Johnny Milano for The New York Times

On Tobay Beach in Massapequa, N.Y., is a grotto, inscribed with the names of Town of Oyster Bay residents who died on 9/11. It was placed on the bay side of this barrier island because visitors have a direct line of sight to the spot where the World Trade Center towers once stood.

The names on the wall reflect who lived in that part of Nassau County 20 years ago: members of the New York Police Department and the Fire Department alongside those in financial services who worked in the World Trade Center.

Roughly 50 members of the Long Island chapter of the Sworn Guns Law Enforcement Motorcycle Club came to the memorial Saturday to say a collective prayer. Some bikers stared at the wall, while others turned toward the bay and stared up at the sky, as blue as it had been on Sept. 11, 2001.

The bikers then moved to the tiki bar at Surf Shack Flip Flop Coastal Kitchen, about 200 feet from the memorial, and raised beer cans and shot glasses to, in the words of the club’s founder, Chris Bottcher, “the collective memory.”

Mr. Bottcher, 47, of Manorville, N.Y., who retired from the Police Department in 2018, was at the South Tower when it fell. Every year he and his fellow bikers ride on the anniversary to a 9/11 memorial, and this year, the club decided to return to Tobay Beach.

He said he was determined to teach his children about the events of 9/11 through his own recollection, as well as the stories of his fellow law enforcement officers who were at ground zero that day.

“I would like people to remember how police officers, firefighters and first responders were treated with dignity and respect thereafter, and I think a lot of that has gone away,” Mr. Bottcher said.

Credit…Brittainy Newman for The New York Times

Survivors, labor leaders and politicians came together on Saturday afternoon to commemorate the 73 employees of a World Trade Center restaurant who died on 9/11, and to call for improved conditions in the service industry nationwide.

The ceremony was as much a rally for workers’ rights as a solemn memorial for those who died at Windows on the World, which occupied the top floors of the North Tower.

“On 9/11 I lost three precious things,” said Fekkak Mamdouh, who worked at Windows on the World and is now senior director for One Fair Wage, the advocacy group that hosted the event.

“I lost my brothers and sisters that work with me. I lost my sense of security and safety as an Arab Muslim,” he said, “and I lost a good paying job.”

He and others criticized the $2.13 federal minimum wage for tipped workers — the same rate that existed in 2001 — calling it “subminimum.” (Federal law requires that tipped workers receive at least $7.25 an hour, but up to $5.12 of it can come from tips, leaving the employer to pay as little as $2.13.)

“We’ve heard the phrase ‘essential worker’ so often in the last year and a half, and we are truly going to recognize that this work is essential,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York. “We must do much more than words.”

Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, echoed that sentiment.

“Coming here gives me strength to keep pushing one fair wage until we get it done in the United States Congress,” Mr. Schumer said. “When we make your lives better, we make New York better, we make America better.”

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton thanked the service workers and advocates for “taking your grief and your loss and turning it into this movement,” and urged them to “keep going.”

Credit…Brittainy Newman for The New York Times

Mr. Mamdouh and other former Windows on the World employees lit 20 candles and read aloud the names of the colleagues they lost.

Tez Termulo Boiz said she started working at Windows on the World as a college junior and essentially grew up there.

“When you hit something like the 20th, it really becomes a much bigger event, and reminding you what you lost,” said Ms. Boiz, who now works in finance and lives in New Jersey.

She had an even more basic request than a living wage: kindness.

“Don’t deny a tip. Don’t berate your server,” she said. “Be a decent human. That’s all we ask.”

As part of a Sept. 11 memorial ceremony at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., five young men took the U.S. Army Oath of Service. Among them was Patrick Franks, who was celebrating his 24th birthday and fulfilling a lifelong dream of joining the military.

“I’ve always wanted to serve my country,” he said. “That’s the best way I can help the most people.”

Mr. Franks recalled his fourth birthday in 2001. His planned celebration at Disneyland was canceled as news of the terrorist attacks spread and the park closed, so his mother organized a small party with friends in her backyard. The children laughed and played, unaware of the tragedy, while the adults tried to process the events of the day.

Twenty years later, Mr. Franks and his peers were the stars of Saturday’s memorial ceremony, receiving a huge ovation after they were sworn in. Mr. Franks’ father, also named Patrick, described his son as “a natural warrior.” He trains in mixed martial arts, works part-time at a gun range, and grew up hearing World War II stories from his grandfather, who was in the Marines.

Still, Mr. Franks acknowledged being scared of heights, airplanes and the whole idea of boot camp.

“Oh, I’m terrified,” he said with a smile. “But you’ve got to do it.”

The ceremony began with a procession of cars, trucks, motorcycles, helicopters and a flatbed truck carrying 23 tons of World Trade Center wreckage.

Don Barnes, the sheriff of Orange County, noted the bravery of emergency workers and soldiers in the days and years after Sept. 11. He reminded the crowd of the promise to never forget.

“As your sheriff, I am worried we are reverting to a Sept. 10, 2001, mentality,” he said. “We’ve forgotten the lessons of that day.”

Credit…Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

During her first commemoration of the Sept. 11 attacks as governor, Kathy Hochul spent time with the families of victims at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in Lower Manhattan, attended a Fire Department Mass and paid tribute to the New York National Guard.

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