St. Michael’s Cemetery in East Elmhurst, one of the oldest religious, nonprofit cemeteries in New York City, hosted a memorial service and concert on 9/11 to honor the victims of the attacks as well as the victims of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rev. Julie Hoplamazian opened the program, which was underlined with musical performances by Sid Cherry and the Brass 22 Band. She reflected on the “worst day in U.S. history” and the COVID-19 crisis.
She compared the unity everyone experienced after the tragic events of 9/11 to the political and ideological fracture that happened during the COVID-19 crisis.
“COVID-19 has not only separated us, it has divided us,” the reverend said, “at a time when we have needed each other the most.”
She hoped that no one would ever forget the lessons 9/11 taught.
“The antidote to tragedy is community. The most natural response to pain is kindness so that we can face life’s greatest challenges when we do it together,” Rev. Hoplamazian said.
Queens Borough President Donovan Richards also referred to the current polarized political climate, a far cry from unity New Yorkers experienced after the day of infamy 20 years ago.
“We have to overcome hate with love. We have to get back to that,” Richards urged. “Remember those days after 9/11 when we actually said good morning to each other? When people would come up to you, ‘Hey, you’re thirsty? You want a bottle of water?’ We have to get back to being humane. That’s the way we honor those who’ve gone on to glory.”
Tony Barsamian of the Queens Gazette, who led through the program, touched on Richards’ remarks, but also remembered the uncertainty that came after that day 20 years ago.
“We had no idea if we were going to be attacked every minute for the rest of our lives or if we [would] even live past that day,” Barsamian said. “And the same thing with COVID. When it first hit us, we were totally afraid. As you said, Donovan, we are the United States of America. We overcome everything, and we’re united together.”
Assemblyman Zohran Mamdani was in middle school on Sept. 11, 2001. He shared that his teacher took him and another Muslim student out of the classroom to tell them something had happened that might change how their classmates would treat them.
“I bring this up because I think that in the time since then, we’ve seen all that is beautiful in our communities and also all that we still have to recognize,” Mamdani said. “And in her moment showing me that care, showing my classmate that care, and also the fear that she had that was well rounded.”
Mamdani reflected on the past 15 months where communities were blamed for the COVID-19 pandemic only to realize that no one could stop the pandemic.
“It is a cruel fact that on these two moments that truly changed our worlds forever, that New York was at the heart,” Mamdani said. “But we suffered the greatest loss in those moments. And I mourn the more than 3,000 that we lost on that day of September. The more than 50,000 over this pandemic, and also the hundreds of thousands we’ve lost in the wars that have had happened since.”
Former Councilman Costa Constantinides pointed out that someone called the Mets, who won Friday night’s game against the Yankees, heroes.
“Those aren’t heroes,” Constantinides said. “Heroes were the men and women who we lost, who we continue to lose. They are what real heroism is all about. As long as we teach our young people, they’ll understand about 9/11 the same way we do.”
Retired Port Authority commanding officer Kenneth Honig was the CO at JFK and LaGuardia airports at the time, and said the attacks were personal. The Port Authority lost 84 employees, 37 of them Port Authority police officers.
However, he also honored the countless firefighters and police officers who participated in the largest rescue mission in the nation’s history, rescuing over 25,000 people from the twin towers before they collapsed.
“Without regard for their own safety, they did what they do every single day,” Honig said. “They put their lives on the line to save others.”
Maureen Santora, the mother of 23-year-old firefighter Christopher Santora, the youngest of the 343 FDNY members who lost their lives on 911 trying to save others, shared that Christopher was a talented clarinet player.
Christopher had been a firefighter for only two months and was assigned to Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9 in Midtown, which lost more firefighters than any other firehouse in the city.
She addressed the young musicians of Brass 22 — all Juilliard students — and shared how touched she was while listening to their performance.
“I heard the calm before the storm,” Maureen Santora said. “I heard the chaotic music when the towers actually fell. I heard the sadness. And then I heard the fact that all the people who died have people who love them dearly, and no matter how long [ago] they have died, their love will never end.”
Maureen Santora, a former teacher, said that her son, who loved history, would be disturbed by the current divided climate where only one opinion seems to matter.
“We need to be kinder to each other. We need to be more tolerant of each other,” Maureen Santora said.
His dad Al, a former firefighter, reminded everyone never to forget the sacrifices made on that fateful September day and that the names of those etched in the marble memorial walls “were actual human beings just like you and me. And they died, either trying to save someone and died on that day or died as a result of the injuries they sustained.”
Like his wife, he asked everyone to treat each other with more kindness and love.
“What the terrorists did was try to bring us down. But they didn’t bring us down, they raised us up,” AL Santora said. “Let’s keep climbing. Let’s keep rising up.”