On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, America honors the memory of those who were lost: 'We remember'

NEW YORK — Solemn crowds around the country gathered in silence Saturday for the 20th time to remember the nearly 3,000 people killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that forever changed the nation.

Bells tolled to signify the moments each tower of the World Trade Center was hit 20 years ago. Family members clutched photos of loved ones and wiped tears from one another's eyes. In New York City, twin beams of light reached 4 miles into the sky in a haunting reminder of where the towers once stood.

Ceremonies were held Saturday in New York City, at the Pentagon and outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania, to honor the dead.

As survivors, politicians, first responders and loved ones of those who died reflected on the anniversary, many praised the unity Americans showed and highlighted the importance of passing on the memory of the day to those too young to remember it.

Former President George W. Bush recalled the unity and strength Americans showed 20 years ago, urging the country to put aside political views to come together again today. 

“So much of our politics has become a naked appeal to anger, fear and resentment," Bush said at a private ceremony for family of those killed when United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a field outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania. 

“On America’s day of trial and grief, I saw millions of people instinctively grab their neighbor’s hand and rally to the cause of one another."

Bush, who was in office at the time, acknowledged that many people today aren't old enough to remember these moments, even though they now "owe a vast, unconscious debt" to the first responders and others who died in the attacks.

"For those too young to recall that clear September day, it is hard to describe the mix of feelings we experienced," he said. "There was horror at the scale of destruction and awe at the bravery and kindness that rose to meet it."

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden planned to visit all three sites. In New York, they were joined by former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, as well as former first ladies Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. The three presidents stood side-by-side, each wearing blue ribbons and holding their hands over their hearts as a procession marched a flag through the memorial.

Christine Munson, whose mother, Theresa, died in the south tower on Sept. 11, said she wishes the country could go back to the unity she felt after 9/11.

“We were there for each other and now we’re so divided,” she said. 

Munson has volunteered at the 9/11 Museum, sharing her mother’s story with countless strangers. That’s part of what’s unique about mourning a 9/11 victim, she said.

“Most people die and you have a private ceremony," she said. "Here, it’s with the whole world."

Family members honor memory of fallen loved ones at Pentagon 

Outside the Pentagon early Saturday, guests walked through an aisle lined with flags, trickling into rows of white chairs near where two fire trucks from the Arlington County Fire Department displayed a large American flag.

Near the front, Richard Keller and his wife honored the memory of his son, Chandler Keller. Keller, 29 at the time of the attacks, died onboard the hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 departing Dulles to Los Angeles. 

"We lost him on that day, and we've been back almost every year to remember him," Richard Keller said."...We just can’t believe it’s been 20 years. We’re tried hard to keep his memory alive."

Also at the ceremony was Barbara Lee, who was working at the Pentagon the day of the attacks.

“I think it’s appropriate that we remember, we remember the people that we lost, we remember the families,” said Lee. 

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin began his remarks by acknowledging the pain those in attendance bear "in ordinary moments of absence, in quiet minutes that can seem to stretch off for hours." Austin said, 20 years after the attacks, nearly a quarter of U.S. citizens today were born after 9/11.

Byron Alexander, retired Deputy Chief of the Alexandra Fire Department and a first responder during the attack, also said it is important to continue to speak about what happened, to preserve the memory of 9/11. 

"Many of our recruits were either babies or weren’t even born when 9/11 occurred, so they don't really understand," he said. "So it’s important for us to continue to help them understand the significance in what happened that day."

— Sarah Elbeshbishi, USA TODAY

'Look to the skies and remember': Bush reminds Americans of unity after 9/11

At a private ceremony for family in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, former President George W. Bush spoke of the moment people across the U.S. learned of the attacks.

"The world was loud with carnage and sirens, then quiet with missing voices that would never be heard again," he said.

"The actions of an enemy revealed the spirit of a people, and we were proud of our wounded nation," he added.

Amid an era of increased political polarization, Bush urged for the same unity that came after 9/11, saying "Whenever we need hope and inspiration, we can look to the skies and remember."

Saturday's ceremony at the Flight 93 National Memorial included a reading of the names of each person who died, followed by the tolls of the Bells of Remembrance.

Vice President Kamala Harris spoke of the hard times the families of those on Flight 93 have faced, and how they must remember their faces on every birthday and every time they tuck in their kids.

"You have felt it every day, every week and every year that has passed, these 20 years," she said. "Please know your nation sees with you, and we stand with you."

Hundreds gather for reading of names at 9/11 Memorial in NYC

A solemn crowd of hundreds of first responders, families of victims and politicians lined the 9/11 Memorial in New York City to mark the 20th anniversary. Families held photos of loved ones who died in the attack as flowers and flags were placed near their names on the Mmemorial.

Among the attendees were former police detective Madeline Lawrence, 60. She said she wasn’t surprised when she heard her coworker Sgt. Rodney C. Gillis ran into the south tower on Sept. 11. 

“That was what Rodney would do,” she said of Gillis, who died in the attack. Lawrence said Gillis was goal oriented. He wanted to help others. He drove to the World Trade Center from where he was stationed in Brooklyn and ran in on his own. 

“He was our sergeant, and he looked out for us,” she said. “He appreciated the magnitude of those buildings.”

NYPD Officer Michael Campagno plays Taps after the last name was read at the conclusion of the ceremony. The September 11 Commemoration Ceremony marks the 20th Anniversary of the attacks that took place on 9/11. The ceremony took place on the 9/11 Memorial Plaza at the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan, NY on Sept 11, 2021.

Gillis’ brother, Ronald, called his brother a “character.” He could be funny and he could be serious. But the hardest part for Ronald in losing his brother is that his brother’s three children don’t have their father. The past 20 years have been a challenge but Ronald Gillis, 56, said he comes to the ceremony to remember his brother. 

“It’s 20 years without my brother. It’s 20 years rehashing this,” he said.

Roxanne Nedd, 57, lost her husband, who worked at the Windows of the World restaurant in the World Trade Center. She had to raise their two children without her husband and said they had countless plans for life together. Now, she tries to live the life they once talked about.

"I miss him,” she said. But, “you just have to move forward with your life. … We have to live our best lives we can."

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Bruce Springsteen plays song as bell tolls

Bruce Springsteen sings during  the September 11 Commemoration Ceremony marks the 20th Anniversary of the attacks that took place on 9/11. The ceremony took place on the 9/11 Memorial Plaza at the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan, NY on Sept 11, 2021.

As the bell tolled recognizing the fall of the second tower at New York City's 9/11 Memorial, Bruce Springsteen performed to an emotional crowd, with may people starting to cry as he sang. 

"When all the summers have come to an end. I'll see you in my dreams," he sang. "We'll meet and live and love again. I'll see you in my dreams."

The song, "I'll See You in My Dreams," is from his 2020 album, "Letter to You." Springsteen previously released "The Rising" in 2002 that articulated the nation's fear, anger and sorrow following the 9/11 attacks.

The imagery of "rising" has multiple interpretations, including a rising to heaven and the firefighters rising up up the stairwells of the World Trade Center on 9/11.

“One of the most powerful images of the 11th, that I’d read in the paper, some of the people coming down were talking about the emergency workers who were ascending,” Springsteen said on “Nightline” at the time of the album’s release in June 2002. “The idea of those guys going up the stairs, up the stairs, ascending, ascending. I mean you could be ascending a smoky staircase, you could be in the afterlife, moving on.”

Contributing: Eric Kieta, the Daily American; Chris Jordan, Asbury Park Press; Rick Rouan, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

Follow Breaking News Reporter Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller. Contact News Now Reporter Christine Fernando at or follow her on Twitter at @christinetfern.

Read more on the Sept. 11 attacks:

By the numbers: Facts from a tragic day in American history

Did 9/11 permanently change life in the US? More Americans say so than ever before

The photo of a grieving 9/11 son was unforgettable. 20 years on, he recalls his mom's sacrifice.

9/11 hijackers were 'hiding in plain sight' before the 2001 attacks. How did they do it?