With the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on Friday, the rebuilt World Trade Center has been threatened anew by the coronavirus. Families of those killed and survivors question whether Americans are keeping their promise to “Never Forget,” as the annual remembrance ceremony, like many other rituals, will be reimagined this year due to pandemic-era precautions on gatherings.
Meanwhile, the economy of downtown Manhattan, which was left devastated in 2001 after the Twin Towers and surrounding buildings were destroyed and more than 2,700 were killed by Al Qaeda hijackers, has suffered another unprecedented financial blow as people once again exit New York City.
“People are much more worried about someone coughing on them than someone blowing up a building,” Vishal Garg, chief executive of mortgage refinance startup Better.com, headquartered at 3 World Trade Center on the site known as Ground Zero, told Reuters this week.
Friday will see two dueling ceremonies planned in New York City – one at the Sept. 11 memorial plaza and the other at a corner near the World Trade Center – reflecting a divide over the memorial's decision to suspend a cherished tradition of relatives reading victims' names in person.
In New York – where the nation’s deadliest coronavirus spike happened this spring but has since been fairly well contained – leaders of the National Sept. 11 Memorial & Museum said their plan for a no-reading ceremony would honor both virus precautions and 9/11 families’ attachment to being at Ground Zero on the anniversary.
Memorial leaders said they wanted to avoid close contact among readers, who are usually paired at the podium, and instead, use a recording of the names played over a loudspeaker. But Jim Riches, who lost his son Jimmy, a firefighter, said the decision sounded like an excuse for sidelining the families’ role in commemorating 9/11.
“I wish they wouldn’t forget, but they’re trying to," he said.
Another 9/11-related organization, the Stephen Stiller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, quickly arranged its own simultaneous ceremony a few blocks away, saying victims’ relatives could recite names while keeping a safe distance.
“We need to keep letting America know what happened 19 years ago. And they need to see that emotion of the day, not a recording,” chairman Frank Siller told the Associated Press, adding that he may attend both to honor the brother he lost, firefighter Stephen.
Vice President Mike Pence is expected at both those remembrances.
The controversy comes about a month after the double beams of light that evoke the fallen Twin Towers were nearly canceled in the name of virus safety, until an uproar restored the tribute. The Fire Department has cited the virus in urging current members to stay away from any observances of the 2001 attacks that killed nearly 350 firefighters.
Meanwhile, downtown Manhattan has seen record dips in rent as apartments remain vacant, and major financial firms keep their workforce remote until at least 2021. A theatre at One World Trade Center remains unfinished and construction on the fourth and final skyscraper to be rebuilt at the site of Ground Zero has been stalled during the pandemic, according to Reuters.
Over the past two decades, a $25 million construction project funded by both the private and public sectors had transformed Ground Zero into a bustling transportation hub, business center and tourist attraction complete with a museum and solemn memorial to remember those fallen, according to the Port Authority of New York City, which owns the land.
Four waterfalls cascade into each of the two reflection pools – a design by architect Michael Arad – positioned where the Twin Towers once stood. Before the pandemic, tourists usually crowded around the pools to read the names of the victims inscribed into bronze plates spread across the plaza. Six months after New York City first went into lockdown at the onset of the pandemic in the U.S., the site is nearly empty, Reuters reported.
Even so, Daniel Libeskind, the architect who spearheaded the World Trade Center’s reconstruction plan, dismissed ideas that the city that bounced back from a major terrorist attack on American soil could be defeated or permanently declared “dead” due to a virus.
“People said New York will never come back. And it’s the same thing during the pandemic,” Libeskind told Reuters in an interview. “But I don’t believe it. New York is too resilient.”
Rent in downtown Manhattan has dipped by 1.4% through July – largest annualized fall since 2010, Nancy Wu, an economist with the real estate database StreetEasy, told Reuters. Though the neighborhood by the World Trade Center was the city’s fastest-growing in 2019, she said available apartments spiked by 80 percent this July compared with the same month a year earlier.
Even with 9/11 remembrances reimagined in New York, Anthoula Katsimatides, who’s on the memorial board, said the event wasn’t canceled, and the board has tried to find a way to pay tribute to their loved ones in a respectful way during a public health emergency.
“Who expected COVID-19?” she asked. “It was completely unforeseen. As was 9/11.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.