9/11 anniversary: 18 years since terror attack, updated memorial honors first responders who died of illnesses

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Eighteen years later, they remain gone – but never forgotten.

The names of the nearly 3,000 people who died on Sept. 11 are, as usual, being read aloud this anniversary, but for the first time in the presence of a new, bittersweet section of the Ground Zero memorial — one honoring the growing list of first responders who’ve passed away from illnesses diagnosed in the aftermath of the attacks.

“Today, our nation pauses to remember and honor those who fell on 9/11,” Vice President Pence wrote on Twitter. “Their memory will always be in the heart of every American and we will never forget the heroism and courage shown on that fateful day.”

President Trump is set to mark the anniversary with a ceremony at the Pentagon, where former President George W. Bush is also expected to lay a wreath. Pence will attend a memorial at the United Airlines Flight 93 crash site near Shanksville, Pa.

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Following the annual reading in Manhattan this morning, the Port Authority — the owner of the original World Trade Center — will be holding an interfaith remembrance service at nearby St. Peters’ Church.

Farther north, the largest free-flying American flag in the world, which weighs 450 pounds and measures 60 by 90 feet, will be greeting drivers on the George Washington Bridge. And in the evening, the Tribute in Light beams that emanate from near Ground Zero will be visible up to 60 miles away.

The 9/11 Memorial Glade, which opened in late May, pays tribute to the more than 2,000 firefighters, police officers, federal agents and other first responders who have died after inhaling toxic fumes during recovery efforts and when clearing rubble at the scene.

The exhibit – just steps away from the reflecting pools — features six granite monoliths, each weighing 13 to 18 tons, inlaid and bound with strips of World Trade Center steel. The stones point skyward, crafted to look bruised, not broken, as a testament to the strength of the human spirit after the tragedy, the architects told Fox News earlier this year.

A visitor touches one of the granite slabs at the 9/11 Memorial Glade in New York City. When the names of nearly 3,000 Sept. 11 victims are read aloud today at the World Trade Center, a half-dozen stacks of stone will quietly salute an untold number of people who aren’t on the list. (AP)

A visitor touches one of the granite slabs at the 9/11 Memorial Glade in New York City. When the names of nearly 3,000 Sept. 11 victims are read aloud today at the World Trade Center, a half-dozen stacks of stone will quietly salute an untold number of people who aren’t on the list. (AP)

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“Here we honor the tens of thousands / From across America and around the world / Who came to help and to heal / Whose selflessness and resolve / Perseverance and courage / Renewed the spirit of a grieving city / Gave hope to the nation / And inspired the world,” reads an inscription at one end of the Glade.

It opened on May 30 — the 17th anniversary of the official end of the rescue-and-recovery efforts that followed the 9/11 attacks.

But the number of those who have died from 9/11-related illnesses is expected to climb over time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s World Trade Center Health Program says.

In this year alone, those illnesses have claimed the lives of six police officers, the most recent being Cayuga County Undersheriff Stephen McLoud, who passed away from cancer just before Labor Day weekend, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.

Smoke rises from the burning twin towers of the World Trade Center after hijacked planes crashed into the towers in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. (AP)

Smoke rises from the burning twin towers of the World Trade Center after hijacked planes crashed into the towers in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. (AP)

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In June, William Leahy, an officer with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department, also passed away from cancer, which he was diagnosed with in the wake of the attacks.

“[He was] tough as nails and always got the job done,” Lt. Daniel Rhein told the New York Daily News. “At the same time, he would call his mother every day.”

At the opening of the 9/11 Memorial Glade, Caryn Pfeifer, whose firefighter husband Ray Pfeifer died of cancer in 2017, described the area as a “beautiful place for our heroes.”

She told the Associated Press that right after the World Trade Center towers fell, Ray “spent the next nine months searching and digging at Ground Zero without being asked, without being told, and without thinking about the consequences.

“But there were consequences,” she added. “There was illness and pain and death and for Ray that meant his guys and their families were in trouble.”

To date, only two men have been tried and sentenced in connection to the Sept. 11 attacks, leaving victims’ families increasingly frustrated.

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Yet as this 18th anniversary comes, the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the alleged mastermind, is inching closer. He and four other men will face war crimes charges at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba beginning in early 2021, a military judge said Friday.

As for today though, America continues to remember the lives lost, including of those who died at the Pentagon and those on board United Airlines Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania.

Fox News’ Vandana Rambaran contributed to this report.