World

9/11 attacks in U.S. remembered with ceremonies, appeals to 'never forget'

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S. are being commemorated with mournful ceremonies, volunteering, appeals to "never forget," and by raising attention to the extended toll the co-ordinated attacks have taken on responders.

'First responders are still dying and being ill,' says sister of attacks victim

A man hugs a woman during ceremonies commemorating the 18th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks at the 911 Memorial in lower Manhattan on Wednesday. (Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters)

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S. are being commemorated today with mournful ceremonies, volunteering, appeals to "never forget," and by raising attention to the extended toll the co-ordinated attacks have taken on responders.

Relatives of victims of the attacks assembled at Ground Zero in Manhattan in New York City, where the observance Wednesday began with a moment of silence and tolling bells at 8:46 a.m. ET — the moment a hijacked plane slammed into the World Trade Center's north tower.

"As long as the city will gift us this moment, I will be here," Margie Miller, who lost her husband Joel to the attacks, said at the Ground Zero ceremony, which she attends every year. 

"Because I feel like if we don't come, they don't need to do it. And I want people to remember," said Miller, of Baldwin on Long Island, N.Y. After so many years of anniversaries, she has come to know other victims' relatives, and to appreciate being with them.

Retired FDNY firefighter and 9/11 first responder Rob Serra pauses at the 9/11 Memorial Glade, which honours the first responders who are sick or have died from exposure to toxins in the aftermath of the attacks and recovery efforts. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

"There's smiles in between the tears that say we didn't do this journey on our own. That we were here for each other. And that's the peace that I think we get from being here."

The 18th-anniversary ceremonies centre on remembering the nearly 3,000 people killed when planes hijacked by al-Qaeda-linked militants rammed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field near Shanksville. Twenty-six Canadians were among those killed.

In his third Sept. 11 anniversary as president, Donald Trump on Wednesday remembered the victims, first responders and U.S. troops that have battled in Afghanistan

He spent most of his speech at the Pentagon in Washington remembering those immediately affected by the attacks.

President Donald Trump and Melania Trump participate in a moment of silence honoring the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Wednesday at the Pentagon. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

 "For the families who join us, this is your anniversary of personal and permanent loss. It's the day that has replayed in your memory a thousand times over. The last kiss. The last phone call. The last time hearing those precious words, 'I love you,"' said Trump, who began the day observing a moment of silence on the South Lawn with wife Melania and White House staff.

But Trump also served a warning as the aftereffects continue to linger. A rocket exploded at the U.S. Embassy as the anniversary began in Afghanistan, where a post-9/11 invasion has become America's longest war.

"If anyone dares to strike our land, we will respond with the full measure of American power and the iron will of the American spirit, and that spirit is unbreakable," said Trump.

Passengers who fought back

Former U.S. president George W. Bush, commander in chief at the time of the 2001 attacks, was set to appear at an afternoon wreath-laying at the Pentagon.

Members of Congress held their own moment of silence on Capitol Hill, while Vice-President Mike Pence delivered remarks at a commemorative service in Shanksville.

The Flight 93 National Memorial marks the site near Shanksville where the plane went down at 10:03 a.m., after passengers fought back against hijackers. Officials concluded the attackers were aiming the Boeing 757 toward Washington, D.C.

Pence said the memory of those killed in the crash is "carved into the hearts and memories of the American people."

People in attendance at a New York memorial for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks held a moment of silence. 0:41

"People say, 'Why do you stand here, year after year?"' Chundera Epps, a sister of Sept. 11 victim Christopher Epps, said at last year's ceremony at the World Trade Center in New York City. "Because soldiers are still dying for our freedom. First responders are still dying and being ill.

"We can't forget. Life won't let us forget."

All those victims' names are read aloud at the Ground Zero ceremony, where moments of silence and tolling bells mark the moments when the aircraft crashed and the World Trade Center's twin towers fell.

Growing awareness for post-9/11 health issues

But there has been growing awareness in recent years of the suffering of another group of people tied to the tragedy: firefighters, police and others who died or fell ill after exposure to the wreckage and the toxins unleashed in it.

While research continues into whether those illnesses are tied to 9/11 toxins, a victims compensation fund for people with potentially Sept. 11-related health problems has awarded more than $5.5 billion US so far. Over 51,000 people have applied.

John Timson, 10, pauses at the National September 11 Memorial where his uncle Andrew Fisher's name is etched into a panel with other victims during a morning commemoration ceremony for the victims of the terrorist attacks on Wednesday. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

After years of legislative gridlock, dwindling money in the fund and fervent activism by ailing first responders and their advocates, Congress this summer made sure the fund won't run dry. Trump, a Republican and a New Yorker who was in the city on 9/11, signed the measure in July.

The sick gained new recognition this year at the memorial plaza at ground zero, where the new 9/11 Memorial Glade was dedicated this spring.

The tribute features six large stacks of granite inlaid with salvaged World Trade Center steel, with a dedication "to those whose actions in our time of need led to their injury, sickness, and death." No one is named specifically.

Some 9/11 memorials elsewhere already included rescue, recovery and cleanup workers who became ill, and there is a remembrance wall entirely focused on them in Nesconset, on Long Island. But those who fell ill or were injured, and their families, say having a tribute at Ground Zero carries special significance.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon announced Monday its 9/11 memorial will close next week for electrical and lighting work. The project, expected to take until late May, includes repairs to lighting glitches in the shallow reflecting pools under the memorial benches.