COVID OR NOT, PAYING THEIR RESPECTS: The masks were a new feature, but in other respects the annual 9/11 memorial tribute paid by firefighters to the 343 members of the department looked very much the same as they gathered in Riverside Park near the Firemen's Monument.

The coronavirus did not prevent several hundred Firefighters and fire officer from convening at the Firemen's Monument on Riverside Drive Sept. 11 for their annually reading of the names of the 343 FDNY members who died during the World Trade Center rescue efforts 19 years earlier.

They were joined joined by family members and dozens of city residents who turn out every year to pay tribute.

'We Haven't Forgotten'

"Lord, you know and you see we have not forgotten the bonds of love and affection that bind us one to another, and even now in this time of COVID we gather to remember and give thanks for the 343 members of the department who were killed on this date," FDNY Chaplain Stephen Harding said. "We also, Lord, remember the 226 members of our department who have died from World Trade Center-related illness incurred in the performance of their duties on the pile or in the pit."

Hundreds of American flags were planted, as they are every year, on both sides of the monument.

The unofficial remembrance was started by three firehouses in The Bronx that are part of Battalion 18, and over the years has attracted hundreds of firefighters from around the world.

This year, with international travel limited by the pandemic, the crowd was considerably smaller.

"We come every year," said Jill Caryl Weiner, an author and Upper West Side resident. "We are very grateful for the people that do this work. You look at all the flags, and they represent so many people, and you multiply that by all the years since and what they could have all done."

'They Run Toward Danger'

She continued, "They are constantly putting other people's needs ahead of their own—they run in when other people would run out, and we owe them a great debt."

"Sometimes it feels like it was 19 years, and other times it feels like tomorrow," said Battalion Chief James Lemonda, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association. "I cannot help but think of the families that have lost their loved ones. It has to be a scab that is ripped off every year. And no matter how long it is, we will never forget our fallen, and you just have to pray they're in a better place."

He said one of the most-painful parts of the post 9/11 reality was that the FDNY continued to lose members who breathed in the toxins in the air in lower Manhattan during the search for remains.

"And the really sad part is that the number is going to continue to grow. We have literally hundreds of members who are sick and suffering from their exposures," Mr. Lemonda said.

Joel Kupferman, an environmental attorney who worked with the Uniformed Firefighters Association on occupational-health issues after Sept. 11 and attends the ceremony every year, recalled top city officials initially resisted coming to terms with the long-term fallout of firefighters' exposure.

'Spent Millions Denying It'

"It wasn't the firefighters that died that day; it was the rapid and sometimes slow death that was imposed on them with all the cancerous toxins they were exposed to," he said. "Especially the first two to three years, there was not just denial by the city, but they spent millions denying there was a problem."

The organizers made several changes to the ceremony to comply with an order by Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro requiring that FDNY 9/11 memorials comport with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, including the wearing of face masks and social distancing.

They spread out the chairs for surviving family members. The crowd was advised that masks were to be worn: "This service is about our fallen brothers and we wish to continue for many years to come. There is no room for politics today and no opinions. Just respect for our fallen. Please follow the rules."

Prior to the start of the program a substantial number of the attendees were not wearing a mask. With each reminder from the podium, compliance appeared to increase.

Andy Ansbro, president of the Uniformed Firefighter Association thought the prompts from the podium were "appropriate," adding "we don't anyone to get sick. We still have a Department to run."

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