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Tensions Flare Ahead of 9/11 Commemorations Derailed by Virus Fears

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In a year when fear over the coronavirus pandemic has derailed countless American rituals, even the commemoration of 9/11 could not escape untouched.

The 19th anniversary of the terror attacks will be marked by dueling ceremonies at the Sept. 11 Memorial Plaza and a corner near the World Trade Center after the memorial called off a cherished tradition of relatives reading victims’ names in person.

Vice President Mike Pence is expected at both those remembrances in New York, while President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden plan to attend a truncated ceremony at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Pennsylvania.

In New York, the double beams of light that evoke the fallen Twin Towers were canceled due to the virus, until an uproar sparked a change of heart.

The fire department has cited the virus in urging members to stay away from any observances of the 2001 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people, among them almost 350 firefighters.

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Some fear the pandemic is being allowed to undercut the commitment to “Never Forget.”

“It’s another smack in the face,” said Jim Riches, who lost his son Jimmy, a firefighter.

The father is staying home on the anniversary for the first time this year. But he feels others should have the option of reciting the names of the dead at Ground Zero.

Memorial leaders said they wanted to avoid close contact among readers.

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But to Riches, a retired fire battalion chief, the decision sounds like an excuse to sideline the families’ role in commemorating 9/11.

“I wish they wouldn’t forget, but they’re trying to,” he said.

This year’s plans have been a balancing act at the sites where hijacked planes piloted by al-Qaida terrorists crashed on Sept. 11, 2001: New York, the Pentagon and a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

The Flight 93 memorial near Shanksville is trimming its usual 90-minute ceremony, partly by eliminating musical interludes.

Memorial spokeswoman Katherine Cordek said the names of the 40 people killed there would be read, but by one person instead of multiple family members.

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The Pentagon hasn’t yet detailed its plans for the anniversary.

In New York, 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’ commitment to being at Ground Zero on the anniversary.

But 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 said. He said he may attend both observances to honor the brother he lost, firefighter Stephen.

Meanwhile, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro told current firefighters in a memo last month that the department “strongly recommends” members not participate in 9/11 observances.

The department did hold a limited-attendance ceremony on Wednesday to add names to a memorial wall recognizing members who died after exposure to toxins unleashed in the wreckage.

Tensions over anniversary plans flared anew when the memorial announced last month it was nixing the Tribute in Light, twin blue beams that shine into the night sky over lower Manhattan. While there’s no official gathering to view the lights, the memorial cited virus risks to the installation crew.

The cancellation outraged victims’ relatives, police and fire unions and politicians, who noted that construction sites around the city were deemed safe to reopen months ago.

After the Tunnel to Towers foundation said it would organize the display on its own, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and former Mayor Mike Bloomberg, the memorial’s chairman, stepped in to keep the memorial-sponsored lights on.

Memorial President Alice Greenwald later said the organization “should have approached this issue differently.”

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