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Twenty years on, Americans gather in lower Manhattan to remember Sept. 11 attacks


NEW YORK — The anguished recitation of the names of the dead rang out Saturday from the footprints of the World Trade Center as family members, dignitaries and ordinary Americans gathered to mark the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. 

Loved ones took turns reading the nearly 3,000 names, each capping their segment of the list with a tearful personal tribute, interrupted only by solemn silences to mark key moments of that fateful day: the multiple moments of impact and the collapse of the towers. 

 ""My family and I have, at times, known unbearable sorrow and disbelief about the lives that would never be," said Mike Low, whose daughter Sara was a flight attendant on board one of the planes that hit the towers. 

"I'm calling ... for history to be remembered not as numbers, or a date, but the faces of ordinary people — people who looked a lot like Sara."  

Many of those faces were in the crowd in the form of photos pasted to hand-lettered placards and signs, held up by mourners for the benefit of the cameras. 

U.S. President Joe Biden, former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer were among the dignitaries in attendance. Bruce Springsteen was also on hand, performing "I'll See You in my Dreams." 

A massive police presence encircled the 9/11 memorial at the site informally christened Ground Zero two decades ago, now a sparse pair of deep, square fountains marking the footprint of the towers, each engraved with the names of the victims.

Low recalled his first visit to mark the first anniversary of the tragedy, when the site was still a smoldering ruin of twisted metal and concrete. Now, it is a permanent memorial and museum.   

"My wife Bobbie and I stood here with thousands of family members, right in the midst of a grey and black world of destroyed buildings," he said, paying tribute to the countless heroes who gave their lives 20 years ago.  

"Today, this is a quiet place of memory ... as we carry these 20 years forward, I find sustenance in a continuing appreciation of all those who rose to be more than ordinary people."

Around the outside of a robust security perimeter that included countless police officers, bomb-sniffing dogs on patrol and massive dump trucks barricading closed-off streets, it looked like any other Saturday in New York.

A ceaseless parade of dog-walkers, tourists and ordinary passersby moved through the city, many pausing to crane their necks skyward — an eerie echo of 20 years ago — for a look at One World Trade Center, the angular, glass-enclosed single tower that now marks the spot of its predecessor. 

All around the barricades, groups of ordinary Americans gathered to remember — some merely hoping to glimpse a presidential motorcade, others to ruminate on their deep and indelible link to the calamity. 

Dusty Arroyo and his colleague Jason Pickard, both firefighters in Glendale, Calif., made the trip and showed up Saturday in uniform to pay tribute to a colleague's cousin, Patrick Brown, who perished on Sept. 11 as a member of Ladder 3. 

"It's personal for us because of what we do," said Arroyo, who credits watching the disaster unfold on television for his decision to become a firefighter . 

"It's definitely an inspiration to us and to others, and especially to the city of New York."

Mike Hall and John Temperelli were reunited Saturday on the street outside O'Hara's Pub, nearly 20 years removed from the 13 months they spent as disaster-response contractors at a Staten Island landfill sorting through the bargeloads of plane wreckage, building detritus, personal effects and body parts that streamed across New York harbour.

"Twenty years, man," said Hall, pausing to fight back his emotions, when asked what made him make the trip back to New York from his home in California. "It was just something in my heart." 

Despite the often grim nature of their task, Hall said he made lifelong friendships among his fellow team members, all of whom went about their back-breaking, heartbreaking work with an abiding sense of solemnity. 

"Very, very touching, I guess, is the only word to say," he recalled. "But we were glad to be there. Hopefully we gave some families some closure." 

Temperelli, who now works as president of Garner Environmental Services, the disaster abatement firm where Hall worked, greeted his former colleague from the site — "the hill" — with a big bear hug. 

"It beat sitting at home on our hands or donating blood; we had an active role, and we wanted to have an active role," he said, describing Hall as "the mayor of the hill" for his role in organizing and co-ordinating the effort. 

"Through the efforts of the guys on the hill and the women on the hill, there were 386 people identified that might otherwise not have been." 

Temperelli recalled one moment in particular: the recovery of the body of a 57-year-old man, notable because his was one of the few bodies that remained fully intact. 

"We knew who he was because he had his ID in his back pocket," he said. "His name has stayed with me forever."

But for both Hall and Temperelli, the dominant memory was of a country and a community suddenly united in grief and charged with purpose — something neither of them has felt much of since. 

"I thought about it all the way up here. It was the last time I can remember the country as unified as it was," Temperelli said. 

"We'd be asked by the NYPD, 'What's it like back in Texas?' And we'd say, 'Look, everybody's flying flags, everybody's lining up to donate blood, everybody wants to do what they can.' I wish it would go back that way."

A five-hour drive west, near Shanksville, Penn., at the memorial to those who died on United Airlines Flight 93 after passengers overpowered their hijackers, former president George W. Bush — whose presidency came to be defined by 9/11 — said much the same thing. 

"We have seen growing evidence that the dangers to our country can come not only across borders, but from violence that gathers within," said Bush, a reference to the internal divisions fuelling America's latest culture crisis. 

That schism came into sharp focus on Jan. 6, when supporters of Donald Trump — unwilling to accept Biden as president — violently stormed Capitol Hill, smashing windows, overpowering security and violently beating Capitol Police officers in an effort to disrupt the certification of the election results.  

"There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home," Bush 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." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 11, 2021. 

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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