NEW YORK, Sept. 11 (Reuters) — Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and Vice President Mike Pence, both masked, joined New York's somber 19th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, which President Donald Trump marked at the Pennsylvania crash site of a hijacked jet.
Biden and Pence bumped elbows in greeting, one of the many ways the anniversary ceremony has been changed by the coronavirus pandemic. Pence read a biblical verse while Biden made no remarks.
About 200 people including Gov. Andrew Cuomo and U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer joined the New York ceremony, where family members in pre-recorded videos read the names of the nearly 3,000 people killed when two hijacked jets slammed into the Twin Towers, with a third hitting the Pentagon and a fourth taken down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, when its passengers rose up against the al Qaeda hijackers.
A similar memorial ceremony was held at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, where people sat socially distanced on folding chairs near the site that Flight 93 went down.
"The only thing that stood between the enemy and a deadly strike at the heart of American democracy was the courage and resolve of 40 men and women — the amazing passengers and crew of Flight 93," Trump told the crowd.
"America will never relent in pursuing terrorists that threaten our people," Trump said.
He noted the U.S. killings of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2019 and of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in January, but made no mention of the 2011 killing of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden under President Barack Obama and Vice President Biden.
Biden is also due to visit Shanksville separately later in the day. Prior to boarding a plane from his Delaware home, Biden pledged not to make any news during the day with the Nov. 3 election now less than two months away.
"I'm not going to talk about anything other than 9/11. We took all our advertising down. It's a solemn day, and that's how we're going to keep it, okay?," Biden said.
'We've had a lot of people die'
The sun struggled to pierce hazy clouds in New York, a contrast with the 2001 morning of the attacks, which people present that day remember for its piercing, clear skies.
While the memorial was scaled back due to COVID-19, some of the same traditions were observed, such as the ringing of bells at the same time each of the towers was struck and then again at the hour they fell.
After organizers of the main commemoration announced they would play pre-recorded videos of family members detailing the names of the victims, the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation committed to a live reading at a separate site near Ground Zero.
Another tradition, the twin beams of light honoring each of the Twin Towers, will go ahead Friday evening after earlier discussion of canceling it to prevent crowds gathering.
Nicole Vilardo was at the Ground Zero ceremony to remember her father, Joseph Vilardo, who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald and was 42 when he was killed.
Photos from 9/11 ceremonies on 19th anniversary:
"It was a little bit harder to get in this year," she said as her four-year old son and 20-month-old daughter squirmed in a stroller.
Vilardo works as a cancer surgeon at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, one of the worst hit at the height of the city's coronavirus outbreak in March and April. "We had a lot of people die," she said. The city has lost eight times as many people to the virus as to the 9/11 attacks.
"The thing that is similar is the resiliency of this city," she said, comparing the two crises. "New York is unstoppable. It’s going to come back. You wake up and New York is here. That was the feeling in 2001 and it’s the same today."
At St. Paul's Chapel, built in 1766 and a place of refuge for exhausted firefighters on 9/11, the Rev. Phillip A. Jackson ceremoniously rang the Bell of Hope at 8:46 a.m., the time the first plane hit.
"We lost almost 24,000 of our fellow New Yorkers this year. I don't know about you, but for me that is a heartbreak and a loss that we will remember forever," Jackson said before ringing the bell, a gift from the city of London that has been rung on every anniversary since 2002.
'It never goes away'
At the memorial site, Biden spoke to 90-year-old Maria Fisher, who lost her son in the /11 attacks. He told her he lost his son as well, and lamented, "It never goes away, does it?"
He handed her the rose he was holding.
Asked what today means for him, Biden replied, "It means I remember all my friends that I lost."
The ruins of the shattered World Trade Center have since been replaced by a glittering $25 billion complex that includes three skyscrapers, a museum and the memorial with the goal that it would be again be an international hub of commerce.
But the pandemic has rendered it somewhat of a ghost town, adding an eerie quality to the commemoration of the attack, with office workers staying home and tourists avoiding the memorial site.
Amanda Barreto, 27, of Teaneck, New Jersey, lost her godmother and aunt in the attacks. Biden came up to her and offered his condolences.
"He knows what it means to lose someone. He wanted me to stay strong," Barreto said afterward. "And he's so sorry for my loss."
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt, Daniel Trotta and Frank H. McGurty in New York and Jeff Mason in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, additional reporting by Daniel Trotta, Jonathan Allen, John Whitesides, Joseph Ax and Jarrett Renshaw; Writing by James Oliphant; Editing by Scott Malone, Rosalba O'Brien and Diane Craft)