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Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice-President Joe Biden and his wife Jill, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence and his wife Karen all stand with their hands over their hearts as they attend ceremonies marking the 19th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center at the 911 Memorial & Museum in New York City, New York, US, September 11, 2020. Image Credit: Reuters

New York: The families came together again Friday to honour their loved ones at the site where their lives were stolen. The names of the victims resounded across the plaza, and the bells tolled in New York City as they have in years past, sounding a peal of collective mourning for those killed on one of the darkest days in American history.

Yet the sombre, solemn rituals held at the Sept. 11 memorial to mark a tragedy that brought New York and the nation to its knees were unmistakably altered at a time of another crisis - one also marked by devastating loss.

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Some of America’s most notable politicians were in attendance, including Vice-President Mike Pence and Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate for president. All of them wore masks in addition to their customary memorial ribbons and lapel pins. They exchanged elbow bumps, then distanced themselves 6 feet apart as they stood for the national anthem.

There was no stage in front of them Friday, and no speeches given to the mourners gathered at the site known as ground zero - two hallmarks of past memorials that were removed in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

It has been 19 years since passenger jets hijacked by terrorists slammed into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon and crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 lives were lost, some 2,700 of them in New York, in the deadliest attack in the country’s history, a blow to America’s psyche.

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Family members pay their respects to victims of the 9/11 attacks during the 19th anniversary commemoration ceremony at the 9/11 Memorial on September 11, 2020, in New York City. Image Credit: AFP

Now, the United States confronts a far deadlier calamity. During the pandemic, the United States has exceeded the death toll of Sept. 11, 2001, by orders of magnitude. In New York City alone, more than 23,000 people have died of the virus.

“It’s two of the most traumatic things that have ever happened to New York City, and it’s probably changed it forever,” said Diane Massaroli, whose husband, Michael, was killed in the World Trade Center.

“We just have to find a different way to live now,” she said, her hands clutching a bouquet of roses and an old wedding photograph. “Like I had to find a different way to live then.”

Although the city has fought its way back from a spring when it was the epicentre of the pandemic and hundreds were dying daily, the crisis has not ended. The threat of COVID-19 still lurks.

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People have placed US flags in the ground to honour the victims of the 9/11 attacks outside the US Capitol on September 11, 2020 in Washington, DC. Image Credit: AFP

Having transformed so many aspects of daily life, the pandemic thus affected one of the city’s most sacred and solemn moments. The family members gathered at the Sept. 11 memorial’s 8-acre site in lower Manhattan were asked to wear masks and stay socially distant, and others were discouraged from gathering near ground zero.

There was no platform where readers took turns at a microphone, honouring the victims by reciting their names. The list this year was read and recorded in advance, then broadcast online and at the plaza.

Still, politicians and civic leaders gathered, including some who have publicly sparred over the response to the virus, like Pence, Biden and Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York. Despite their disagreements, they exchanged genial greetings, exhibiting unity at a time more often marked by bitter partisan division.

Biden earlier said he would be following tradition and suspending campaigning for the day, including pausing ads in the midst of a bitter contested election. He will travel later to Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where President Donald Trump and his wife, Melania, are also expected to attend a memorial service.

Before the ceremony Friday morning, the streets around the memorial were filled with Secret Service officers and firefighters and police officers in their dress blues. About half of them wore masks.

Also planned for the day was an F-18 jet flyover, an announcement that provoked fierce backlash from city residents shaken from its echoes of a moment when planes were used as deadly weapons. The Department of Defense later canceled it after a request from City Hall, a City Hall spokesman said.

The changes to the ceremony were not without controversy. Last month, the memorial said that it would do away with its annual Tribute in Light, in which two blue beams of light are projected over the city until the dawn of Sept. 12.

The decision, which the memorial said would prevent crowds gathering, was reversed after it provoked outrage from some victims’ relatives, elected leaders, and police and firefighter unions.

Still, unhappy with the changes to the ceremony, the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, which honours a firefighter who died while responding to the attack, held a simultaneous memorial just blocks away.

At that event, around 125 relatives of 9/11 victims read the names of those who died on a stage at Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, just blocks away from the Sept. 11 memorial. Attendees wore masks, and those onstage stayed 6 feet apart.

Pence and his wife, Karen, also attended that ceremony, where they read biblical passages.

“I pray these ancient words will comfort your loss and ours,” Pence said, before reading the words from Psalm 23.

Frank Siller, the brother of Stephen Siller and the foundation’s chief executive, said it was emotionally powerful for many victims’ families to say a loved one’s name in front of other attendees.

“They want to tell their family’s story,” Siller said Thursday. “And they should be able to tell that story.”