NEW YORK – When this year’s Sept. 11 anniversary ceremony unfolds at ground zero, the mayor who has helped orchestrate the observances from their start will be watching for his last time in office. And saying nothing.
Over his years as mayor and chairman of the National Sept. 11 Memorial & Museum, Michael Bloomberg has sometimes tangled with victims’ relatives, religious leaders and other elected officials over an event steeped in symbolism and emotion.
But his administration has largely succeeded at its goal of keeping the commemoration centered on the attacks’ victims and their families and relatively free of political image-making. In that spirit, no politicians – including the mayor – were allowed to speak last year or will be this year.
Memorial organizers expect to take primary responsibility for the ceremony next year and say they plan to continue concentrating the event on victims’ loved ones, even as the forthcoming museum creates a new, broader framework for remembering 9/11.
“As things evolve in the future, the focus on the remembrance is going to stay sacrosanct,” memorial President Joe Daniels says.
At Wednesday’s ceremony on the 2-year-old memorial plaza, relatives will again read the names of the nearly 3,000 people who died when hijacked jets crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and near Shanksville, Pa. Readers also will recite the 1993 trade center bombing victims’ names.
At the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, where Wednesday’s ceremony will include bell-ringing and wreath-laying, officials gathered Tuesday to mark the start of construction on a visitor center. The Pentagon plans a Wednesday morning ceremony for victims’ relatives and survivors of the attacks, with wreath-laying and remarks from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other officials, and an afternoon observance for Pentagon workers.
Deciding how to mark the anniversary of the worst terror strike in U.S. history was a sensitive task for Bloomberg and other leaders in the months after the attacks, perhaps especially for the then-new mayor. Officials were planning a memorial service for thousands of families from 90 countries, while also setting a tone for how the public would commemorate 9/11.
“That was the challenge that we faced, and it was an enormous one,” recalls Jonathan Greenspun, who then was part of Bloomberg’s community affairs unit and now is a political consultant. “There was a recognition, by the mayor, that the ceremony had to transcend typical memorial services and the politics that are sometimes associated with them.”
Officials fielded about 4,500 suggestions – including a Broadway parade honoring rescue workers and a one-minute blackout of all Manhattan – before crafting a plan centered on reading names at ground zero.
“Our intent is to have a day of observances that are simple and powerful,” Bloomberg said as he and then-Gov. George Pataki announced the plans in 2002.
For years, the ceremonies did include politicians reading names and texts, and Bloomberg made remarks that over the years touched on Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 London subway bombings and the Biblical King David’s grief at the death of his son Absolom, among other topics.
Bloomberg’s role hasn’t always been comfortable, especially for a mayor whose brisk, pragmatic personality and early criticisms of the memorial struck some victims’ relatives as insensitive.
When the ceremony was shifted to nearby Zuccotti Park in 2007 because of rebuilding at the trade center site, some victims’ relatives threatened to boycott the occasion.
The lead-up to the 10th anniversary brought pressure to invite more political figures and to include clergy in the ceremony. And when Bloomberg mentioned the idea of ending the name-reading the next year, some of the relatives were aghast.
By next year’s anniversary, Bloomberg will be out of office, and the museum is expected to be open beneath the memorial plaza.
While the memorial honors those killed, the museum is intended to present a broader picture of 9/11, including the experiences of survivors and first responders.
But the organizers expect they “will always keep the focus on the families on the anniversary,” Daniels said. “We see ourselves as carrying on a legacy.”
That focus was clear as relatives gathered last September on the tree-laden plaza, with a smaller crowd than in some prior years.
After the throng and fervor that attended the 10th anniversary, “there was something very, very different about it,” says Charles Wolf, whose wife, Katherine, was killed in the trade center’s north tower. “It felt almost cemetery-ish, but not really. It felt natural.”