‘Their memories stay alive:' Ceremony honors victims of 9/11 terrorist attacks

The NYPD marked the 15th anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks with a parade to honor the 23 officers it lost on Sept. 11, 2001. Police departments from around the United States and Canada joined the march around lower Manhattan.(Sept. 9) AP

WOODLAND PARK, N.J. — Many families of the nearly 3,000 people killed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, will gather at the World Trade Center site Sunday to remember those they lost. 

On this, the 15th anniversary of the attacks, houses of worship across New York City will toll their bells at 8:46 a.m. ET as institutions observe a moment’s silence to mark the instant when the first plane struck the World Trade Center’s north tower.

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Then family members will begin the annual ceremonial reading of the 2,977 names of those who died in New York, Arlington, Va., and Pennsylvania, as well as the six people killed in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Crowds for the ceremony have diminished over the years. But some families hope that this year, with a significant anniversary falling on a weekend, more people will attend.

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“Parents of the deceased are getting older, younger people usually can’t make it because of work obligations,” said Tom Acquaviva of Wayne, N.J., whose 29-year-old son, Paul, a father of two, died on 9/11. “But I hope this year you will see a lot more people than previous years.”

Acquaviva said that although he thinks of Paul daily, the anniversary of the attacks remains a special day. “My wife and I lost everything,” Acquaviva said. “You carry on, but you don’t move on.”

Tom Meehan missed the ceremony last year because of health issues. “It’s part of the aging process,” said Meehan, 73. “And part of living under the stress.”

Meehan, of Toms River, N.J., is determined to attend this year’s event for his daughter, Colleen, who died in the north tower at the age of 26.

“Hearing those names spoken, their memories stay alive,” Meehan said.

It takes about three hours to read all of the names. In recent years, by the end of the ceremony the crowd has thinned to about 100 people.

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Several years ago, New York’s then mayor, Michael Bloomberg, raised the possibility of curtailing the readings. Meehan, like many other families, is opposed to that.

“I would like to hope that future generations would understand the importance of reading the names and continue it,” he said.

The reading of the names will be interrupted by several periods of silence to mark pivotal moments of the 2001 attacks: 9:03 a.m., when the second plane struck the south tower; 9:37 a.m., when Flight 77 struck the Pentagon; 9:59 a.m., when the south tower fell; 10:03 a.m., when Flight 95 crashed near Shanksville, Pa.; 10:28 a.m., when the north tower fell.

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That final moment has particular resonance for Peter Bitwinski, an accountant for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

In 2001, the Port Authority’s comptroller’s department was located in the World Trade Center’s north tower, about 25 floors below where the first plane struck.

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That day, Bitwinski and nine colleagues helped a quadriplegic friend, John Abruzzo, into a special evacuation chair and took turns guiding the chair down 69 flights of stairs.

“We didn’t know we were working against the clock,” Bitwinski said.

They escaped the building 13 minutes before the tower collapsed.

Earlier this week, Bitwinski was on his hands and knees in the memorial plaza, close to the reflecting pools that mark the footprints where the twin towers once stood. Through a volunteer program called Remembrance Through Renewal, Bitwinski was preparing the area for Sunday’s ceremony by collecting acorns that had fallen from the plaza’s 400 white swamp oak trees and scraping chewing gum from the floor.

Bitwinski, who is 63 and lives in Bayonne, N.J., said he will attend the memorial ceremony for as long as he is fit and able.

“I am a fortunate person who survived,” Bitwinski said. “And in memory of everybody who didn’t make it, I think it’s important for me to honor them.”

Email: berger@northjersey.com

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