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Americans mark 9/11 anniversary at tributes shadowed by coronavirus

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, this year's 9/11 ceremonies looked different, but the families of the victims say the goal is the same: to honor those lost.

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Americans commemorated 9/11 on Friday as a new national crisis — the coronavirus pandemic — reconfigured anniversary ceremonies and a presidential campaign carved a path through the observances.

In New York, victims' relatives gathered Friday morning for split-screen remembrances, one at the Sept. 11 memorial plaza at the World Trade Center and another on a nearby corner, set up by a separate organization.

The Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation objected to the memorial's decision to forgo a longstanding tradition of having relatives read the names of the dead, often adding poignant tributes. Memorial leaders said they made the change as a coronavirus-safety precaution on the 19th anniversary of the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil.

Kathy Swift arrived early at the alternative ceremony a few blocks away, wearing a T-shirt honoring her slain brother, Thomas Swift, who worked in finance.

“We still have to remember," said Swift, 61. “The whole country’s going downhill. It’s one thing after another, and now with the COVID. I’m glad they’re still having this, though.”

President Donald Trump addressed a ceremony at the Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

"The heroes of Flight 93 are an everlasting reminder that no matter the danger, no matter the threat, no matter the odds, America will always rise up, stand tall, and fight back,” the Republican president said, recalling how the plane's crew and passengers tried to storm the cockpit as the hijackers as headed for Washington.

Biden paid respects at the election battleground state's Flight 93 memorial in the afternoon. Earlier, he attended the observance at the 9/11 memorial in New York, exchanging an elbow bump with Vice President Mike Pence before the ceremony began with the usual tolling of a bell.

Biden offered condolences to a woman he spotted crying in the crowd of hundreds, Amanda Barreto, who lost her aunt and godmother in the attacks. Barreto, 27, said Biden “wanted to let me know to keep the faith” and “wanted me to say strong,” telling her he understood what it meant to lose a loved one. His first wife and their daughter died in a 1972 car crash, and his son Beau died of brain cancer in 2015.

Biden didn't speak at the ceremony, which has a longstanding custom of not allowing politicians to make remarks.

Pence went on to the Tunnel to Towers Foundation ceremony, where he read the Bible's 23rd Psalm, and his wife, Karen, read a passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes.

“For the families of the lost and friends they left behind, I pray these ancient words will comfort your heart and others,” said the vice president, drawing applause from the crowd of hundreds.

In short, the anniversary of 9/11 is a complicated occasion in a maelstrom of a year, as the U.S. grapples with a health crisis, searches its soul over racial injustice and prepares to choose a leader to chart a path forward.

Still, families say it's important for the nation to pause and remember the hijacked-plane attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people at the trade center, at the Pentagon in Washington and near Shanksville on Sept. 11, 2001 — shaping American policy, perceptions of safety and daily life in places from airports to office buildings.

Around the country, some communities canceled 9/11 commemorations because of the pandemic, while others went ahead, sometimes with modifications.

The Pentagon's observance was so restricted that not even victims’ families could attend, though small groups can visit the memorial there later in the day.

At the New York memorial, thousands were still invited. But they heard a recording of the names issued from speakers spread around the vast plaza, a plan that memorial leaders felt would avoid close contact at a stage but still allow families to remember their loved ones at the place where they died.

But some felt the change robbed the observance of its emotional impact. The Tunnel to Towers Foundation arranged its own, simultaneous ceremony a few blocks away, saying there was no reason that people couldn't recite names while keeping a safe distance. Reverence for the dead “requires that we read these names out loud, in person, every year,” said foundation chair Frank Siller, whose brother Stephen was a firefighter.

The readers stood at podiums that were wiped down between each person.

The two organizations also tussled over the Tribute in Light, a pair of powerful beams that shine into the night sky near the trade center, evoking its fallen twin towers. The 9/11 memorial initially canceled the display, citing virus-safety concerns for the installation crew. After the Tunnel to Towers Foundation vowed to put up the lights instead, the memorial changed course with help from its chair, former Mayor Mike Bloomberg, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Tunnel to Towers, meanwhile, arranged to display single beams for the first time at the Shanksville memorial and the Pentagon.

Over the years, the anniversary also has become a day for volunteering. Because of the pandemic, the 9/11 National Day of Service and Remembrance organization is encouraging people this year to make donations or take other actions from home.

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Associated Press journalists Alexandra Jaffe and Ted Shaffrey in New York and Darlene Superville in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and Mark Scolforo in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, contributed to this report.