Updated September 11, 2021 - 4:49 pm
WASHINGTON — America paused Saturday to remember the nearly 3,000 lives lost in the terrorist attacks on the nation two decades ago.
On a crisp, sunny morning, a large American flag was unfurled at the Pentagon as the searing sound of bagpipes opened the 9/11 anniversary ceremony.
The name of each person killed in the attack on the nation’s military headquarters was read aloud, followed by the ring of a bell.
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden later attended a wreath-laying ceremony, but made no public remarks, explaining to reporters traveling with him that memorials are hard because of painful memories.
“Whether it’s the first year or the 20th, children have grown up without parents, and parents have suffered without children,” Biden told reporters.
Biden and the first lady attended memorial services Saturday in New York City, Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and Arlington, Virginia.
Biden, in videotaped remarks on Friday, called for unity as the nation remembers those who were killed and the survivors and heroes of that fateful day.
That unity was evident Saturday at the World Trade Center in New York, where Biden appeared with former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.
Former President Donald Trump, a New York native, did not attend.
Flight 93 passengers praised
George W. Bush, who was just months into his presidency when al-Qaida terrorists attacked, attended a ceremony in Pennsylvania where he spoke of heroism displayed by Americans during 9/11, but also warned of the rising danger of foreign and domestic terrorism.
“We have seen growing evidence that the dangers to our country can come, not only across borders, but from violence that gathers within,” Bush said in a keynote speech in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
“There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home,” he said. “They are children of the same foul spirit, and it is our continuing duty to confront them.”
Terrorists hijacked four commercial aircraft and struck the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. United Airlines Flight 93, headed for Washington, crashed near Shanksville when passengers rushed the cockpit and downed the jet.
Speaking of those passengers during the Shanksville memorial, Vice President Kamala Harris said that in “a matter of minutes, in the most dire of circumstances, the 40 responded as one.”
“They fought for their own lives and to save the lives of countless others at our nation’s capital,” Harris said.
In New York, Bruce Springsteen sang. In Shanksville, Biden took pictures with volunteers at the firehouse. In both Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon, he took part in wreath ceremonies.
The last stop on a day that was filled with prayer for the fallen at the Pentagon. One of the passengers in the plane that struck the building, Barbara Edwards, 58, was a Las Vegas schoolteacher who had attended a wedding in Connecticut and visited friends in Washington before boarding a plane for home in Virginia.
The hijacked aircraft made a U-turn and struck the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. EST.
‘United and strong’
An explosion caused by the crash was heard, and a plume of black smoke seen, by Catherine Cortez Masto, an assistant U.S. attorney working at Superior Court in Washington, just over the Potomac River from the Pentagon.
“There was a loud explosion. People just started screaming and trying to get out of the city,” recalled Cortez Masto, now Nevada’s senior U.S. senator.
Driving to her Virginia home as Washington was evacuated, Cortez Masto recalled seeing the airplane tail at the west side of the Pentagon, surrounded by emergency lights and firemen who fought the blaze.
‘“I don’t have words for it because it was just so shocking,” She said in an interview with the Review-Journal last month. “You’re just traumatized and shocked that anything like this could happen.”
In a statement Saturday, Cortez Masto remembered those who perished, and praised those who helped survivors.
She said she was “grateful for the American people who came together in the aftermath to show that this nation remains united and strong.”
The surprise attack was orchestrated by Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida, an Islamic fundamentalist group operating in Afghanistan.
The attacks began in New York, when a flight from Boston to Los Angeles hit the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. A second aircraft, also traveling from Boston to Los Angeles, struck the south tower at 9:03 a.m.
Fuel from the passenger jets fed intense fires that caused the structures to collapse into a toxic cloud of smoke and dust, according to a report commissioned by Congress.
Images of the burning twin towers in New York, the plume of black smoke at the Pentagon, and the heroism of the passengers of Flight 93 are etched into history. But open wounds remain for those who lost loved ones and friends.
“These memorials are really important,” Biden told reporters in Pennsylvania. “But they’re also incredibly difficult for the people affected by them, because it brings back the moment they got the phone call, it brings back the instant they got the news, no matter how years go by.”
Twenty-year war ends
Bush was visiting a Florida school when the deadly attacks occurred. Biden, then a senator, spoke with the president by phone and encouraged him to return to Washington to address the nation.
Biden praised Bush’s speech Saturday, which did not mention the insurrection of Jan. 6, but clearly warned of politics of division, resentment and the growing threat of domestic terrorism.
As president, Bush led the nation to war in Afghanistan and a hunt for bin Laden. Bush also used the terrorist attacks in his administration’s rationale for invading Iraq and conducting controversial interrogations and surveillance.
Bin Laden was killed in May 2011 after Obama approved an operation carried out by Navy SEALs.
The war in Afghanistan continued for another decade, with the withdrawal of U.S. troops last month, ending the 20-year war.
The U.S. withdrawal was negotiated by Trump. But Biden has been criticized for the chaotic departure last month and the swift overthrow of the Afghan government by the fundamentalist Taliban, which allowed al-Qaida safe haven two decades ago.
Biden dismissed the criticism in comments to reporters on Saturday. He said the United States could not place troops in all the countries which al-Qaida now is located.
In a short video released by the White Hours on Friday evening, Biden explained his emotions and thoughts, the pain of children growing up without parents, and the bravery of those who rushed into danger to save others.
“We also saw something all too rare: a true sense of national unity,” Biden said.