This story was reported by Robert Brodsky, Matthew Chayes and Michael O'Keeffe. It was written by O'Keeffe.
Descendants of those lost on 9/11 — some infants and toddlers, some not even born on the day of the deadliest terror attacks on U.S. soil — answered the plea to “never forget” Sunday, delivering some of the most powerful remarks during the ceremony in lower Manhattan to honor those killed 21 years ago.
The children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews of people killed on that awful day joined thousands of other mourners and dignitaries on a damp and gray September morning to remember the nearly 3,000 people killed on Sept. 11, 2001, in New York, Washington and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
“Uncle Joey, although I never got to meet you, I’ve heard stories about your great sense of humor and how we would have had many laughs with you as our uncle,” Megan Henry said of firefighter Joseph Patrick Henry, after reading the names of some of those lost in the attacks. “We know you are always looking over us. Thank you for being our guardian angel and hero.”
Jimmy Riches, named after his FDNY firefighter uncle, said he wasn’t born when Riches died but feels his presence.
“You are always in my heart,” the boy said, “and I know that you are watching me.”
The event was kicked off by vocalist Maya Chaterjee, a rising senior at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn who performed an operatic version of "The Star-Spangled Banner." She was joined at Sunday’s ceremony at the National Sept. 11 Memorial & Museum by past and present political leaders, including Vice President Kamala Harris, Sen. Chuck Schumer, Gov. Kathy Hochul, Mayor Eric Adams and Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman.
Andrew Colabella, who said his cousin died in the 1993 World Trade Center attack, looked directly at the elected officials and criticized them for the divisive politics that have left the nation fractured.
“It took a tragedy to unite our country,” he said, sparking cheers from the crowd. “Back then, nobody cared if you were a Republican, Democrat, age, race, ethnicity — we were united. It took a tragedy to unite us. I want to remind all of you there — it should not take another tragedy to unite our nation.”
Blakeman attended Sunday’s ceremony to represent a community that was hard hit by 9/11 — nearly 500 Long Island residents were killed in the attacks — but also to honor his nephew and colleagues lost when the towers fell.
Blakeman was Port Authority commissioner in 2001; the agency lost 37 cops and dozens of other employees during the attack on the Trade Center. Blakeman’s nephew, Sgt. Thomas Jurgens, was a New York State courts officer providing aid to a badly burned woman in the south tower when the building collapsed.
"It's always a tough day, a very tough day," Blakeman said. "But it is also a day of reunion for my family and friends.”
Jeh Johnson, one of former President Barack Obama's homeland security secretaries, said in an interview at a ceremony checkpoint that the United States "is safer against foreign-inspired, foreign-directed terrorist organizations here in the homeland." Other challenges remain, the former secretary said, including domestic extremism, domestic terrorism and climate change.
"I used to tell my people at DHS, ‘We have to try to stay one step before the problems, not always be one step behind,'" he said.
Grieving family members placed flowers in the grooves between the etched names of the victims as water cascaded inside the twin memorials where the Twin Towers once stood. Many victims’ relatives clutched photos of their loved ones who died in the terror attacks, while others wore shirts bearing the victims’ names and faces.
Anthoula Katsimatides of Astoria came with a photo of her brother, John Katsimatides. John — aka "Johnny Bodacious" — worked for Cantor Fitzgerald and was on the 104th floor of the north tower when the building was hit, she said. He was 31 years old.
"He was really fun, he was the wild man in the room," Katsimatides said. "He was the first one on the dance floor and the last to leave. He lived to dance. We called him 'John Travolta.' He was loving and kind and so sweet."
Jay Saloman wore a shirt embroidered with the name of his brother Wayne, 43, of Seaford. The only day he wore the shirt, Saloman said, was on 9/11.
“One day he went to work and didn’t come home,” he said. “I can’t believe it’s 21 years, put it that way … It’s just something you begin to live with. You always still somewhat expect that you’re going to see — that he’s going to appear one day.”
Saloman was there with his son, Jonathan, 21. The last photo the family has of Wayne, who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald, is of him cradling Jonathan after his christening in Hicksville.
At 8:46 a.m., an FDNY firefighter rang a bell to commemorate when American Airlines Flight 11 hit the north tower. The FDNY bell chimed at 9:03 a.m. to begin the second moment of silence, commemorating when United Airlines Flight 175 struck the south tower, and again at 9:37 a.m. to mark the moment American Flight 77 hit the Pentagon.
The bell chimed again at 9:59 a.m., when the south tower of the World Trade Center fell. Four minutes later, it clanged once more, this time to mark 10:03 a.m., when United Flight 93 crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
About a half-hour later the reading of names fell silent. It was 10:28 a.m., the time of the north tower's collapse, and an FDNY firefighter rang the bell again.
Lourdes Melendez of Queens attended the ceremony with a framed photo of her cousin, FDNY firefighter Ruben “Dave” Correa. They were born two weeks apart and were close throughout their lives. He died on 9/11.
“He had a big mouth like me," Melendez said of Correa, who was with Engine 74 in Manhattan. "He was a Marine and had three daughters and I miss him.”
Twenty-four minutes before the tolling of the first bell, Tom O’Gara, 38, of Kings Park, was queuing at one of several checkpoints to attend the ceremony, where his grandfather Philip Hayes, of East Northport, would be memorialized.
“Still the same emotions going on. Still very sad to come down here. It’s just something that brings the family together — which is nice — but we just cherish every moment together and try to remember him the best that we can,” O’Gara said.
“It’s always sad, but after 21 years it’s just a nice way to remember him: going to the museum, visiting his name every year on the memorial, we really just try to get together as a family," O'Gara added. "It’s sad, but it’s still a nice way for us to get together as a family.”
And they still have memories of Hayes. Lots of them.
“Oh, man, I mean, he was just a great guy. Loved his family. Loved my grandmother. We used to have dance competitions. He used to have dance parties with me.”
Hayes, a retired FDNY firefighter, had been working as a fire safety inspector in the World Trade Center.
Saloman said that while many people stop and remember the grief and loss from 9/11, too many others appear to have moved on.
“Not that they’re supposed to remember, but there was a terrorist attack against our country that day," he said. "Theoretically everybody should remember it, and take precautions and watch out and hope it never happens again."