NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) - When COVID-19 concerns forced changed to the annual 9/11 observance at what was Ground Zero, the Stephen Siller Tunnel To Towers Foundation stepped in.
Families of those who lost their lives on 9/11 gathered near Zuccotti Park to read the names, and also share the stories. There's a special connection for 9/11 families that comes with saying their loved ones names out loud, especially in the shadows of where the Twin Towers once stood. A camaraderie forged by a shared grief, knowing they're not alone.
The children of the fallen are now all grown up. Grandchildren have been born. So much life has happened in 19 years, but today marks when terror created a void that could never be filled.
"Daddy, not a day goes by when we don't think of you. We miss you and we love you," one reader said.
"We miss you. We love you and you are always in your hearts," said another.
"Uncle Sean, I know you're looking down on us. We love and miss you," said another.
The somber tradition of reading the names of the fallen in person almost didn't happen this year.
"So many people found their way to Ground Zero to save people's lives. We better find a way to do it no matter what the situation is, and we did," said Frank Siller of the Tunnel To Towers Foundation.
Siller said reading their names is the least they could do, even if it has to be done with precautions.
"I go down there before the sun comes up. I'm down at Ground Zero. I talk to my brother. I say a prayer," Frank Siller said.
He honors his brother Stephen all year through the Tunnel to Towers Foundation, which bears Stephen's name.
Still, 19 years later, this day does not get any easier.
"I'm overcome with emotion, every single year," Frank said.
Stephen Siller was a firefighter, and is among the more than 2,900 people who died on 9/11.
When the National September 11 Memorial and Museum canceled its in-person reading of the names, opting instead for a taped ceremony amid COVID concern, the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers stepped in, creating its own event.
"There's a lot of emotion that day. They're taking that away," Frank Siller said. "They tried to take that away. We're not going to let that happen."
"There should never be an excuse for things not to happen. If there's a way it could happen, should happen and it must happen," said Bradley Blakeman.
The podiums were cleaned after each speaker, and set six feet apart.
He says it's more than reading the names. It's about honoring the lives lost, acknowledging the unending void.
"That's where my brother was buried. That's where so many people were buried," he said.
Buried - but not forgotten.
Siller says in the face of new risks, being here is the least they can do to honor that sacrifice.
Kathy Cunningham was grateful to have an opportunity read her brother Donald Robertson, Jr.'s name, just like in years past.
"It is a source of healing and a source of peace to keep his memory alive," she said.
Still this was unlike any previous ceremony. Two podiums were socially distant and cleaned after every speaker. Masks were required.
"Jerry would've been beaming with pride, and overjoyed with his five grandchildren," one reader said.
Vice President Mike Pence and his wife also participated in the ceremony, each reading scriptures from the bible.
"In memory of the heroes that were forged that day," Pence said. "And for the families, loved ones and friends they left behind."
Nineteen years later, for many still feels like yesterday. Voices still crack. Names are read and memories are shared, making sure we'll never forget.
Pence stayed for a little bit before departing.
It was not a public event. Only 9/11 families were permitted, brought out in waves so they can hear their loved one's name read.
The September 11 Museum opened for the first time in months Friday just families. It will open to the general public Saturday.
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