As America marks the 19th anniversary of the September 11 attacks in the midst of another unfolding tragedy, the men vying to lead the nation next year are paying their respects at the same memorial — without crossing paths.
President Donald Trump and his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, were both appearing in rural Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on Friday, where the hijacked Flight 93 crashed in a field, killing everyone on board.
While Mr Trump spoke at the site’s annual memorial ceremony held on Friday morning, Mr Biden will visit a few hours later, after attending the 9/11 Memorial & Museum’s annual commemoration at Ground Zero in New York, along with Vice President Mike Pence.
"The only thing that stood between the enemy and a deadly strike at the heart of American democracy was the courage and resolve of 40 men and women – the amazing passengers and crew of Flight 93," Mr Trump told the crowd at the Shanksville service.
While Mr Trump and Mr Biden’s visit will not overlap, Mr Pence and Mr Biden’s did. And in a rare moment of detente, Mr Biden was seen approaching Mr Pence after arriving at the ceremony and tapping him on the shoulder to say hello. The current and former vice president then shared an elbow bump — the popular Covid-era handshake replacement — as did Mr Biden and second lady Karen Pence.
Though the candidates and country will be focused on the commemorations, the political significance of their visits to Shanksville is hard to ignore, with Pennsylvania a crucial battleground state. Mr Trump won there by less than one percentage point four years ago, and Democrats hope they can return it to their column in fewer than two months.
Still, Mr Biden insisted that he would steer clear of politics on a national day of mourning. “I’m not gonna make any news today. I’m not gonna talk about anything other than 9/11,” he told reporters. “We took all our advertising down, it’s a solemn day, and that’s how we’re going to keep it, OK?”
Indeed, at the ceremony in Lower Manhattan, Mr Biden was standing, listening to the reading of the names of the victims when he spotted a woman crying in the crowd. Amanda Barreto, 27, of Teaneck, New Jersey, lost her godmother and aunt in the 9/11 attacks. Mr Biden went up to her and offered his condolences.
Mr Biden “wanted to let me know to keep the faith,” Ms Barreto said. He told her “he knows what it means to lose someone. He wanted me to stay strong. And he’s so sorry for my loss.” She said she was appreciative of his comments and would be voting for him this fall.
Mr Biden also spotted 90-year-old Maria Fisher, who lost her son in the 9/11 attacks. He told her he has lost a son as well. “It never goes away, does it?” he lamented, and handed her a rose.
Before stepping off the plane, he and first lady Melania Trump observed a moment of silence at 8.46am, marking the time when the first plane hit the World Trade Centre 19 years ago.
Mr Pence, meanwhile, headed to the nearby Tunnel to Towers Foundation ceremony, where he and his wife read Bible passages after visiting the National September 11 Memorial.
Former NYPD Commissioner Bernard Kerik issued a statement on the campaign’s behalf honouring the memories of those who died, as well as first responders and “the brave men and women of the US Armed Forces who sacrificed their lives in defense of our freedom and flag since then”.
The National Park Service, which co-hosts the annual Flight 93 memorial event, had originally said it was planning an abbreviated ceremony this year to minimise the spread of the coronavirus. The agency had been planning a 20-minute “Moment of Remembrance” without a keynote speaker or musical guests. Instead, the name of each passenger and crew member was to be read aloud with the ringing of the “Bells of Remembrance”, according to the agency’s website.
But after Mr Biden and then the White House announced their plans, the website was updated to reflect a new schedule that included remarks from Mr Trump and the Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt.
The events come as the president is grappling with fallout from a new book by veteran journalist Bob Woodward, which has refocused attention on the president’s handling of the virus. In interviews, Mr Trump admitted to Mr Woodward that he had played down the threat posed by the virus this winter, even though he knew how deadly it was.
In 2016, the 9/11 memorial events became a flashpoint in the campaign after the then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton abruptly left the Ground Zero 9/11 ceremony and was caught on video stumbling and then falling as she tried to get into a van. Mr Trump also spent the day in New York and paid his own visit to the memorial in lower Manhattan.
Friday will mark Mr Trump’s second time observing the 9/11 anniversary in Shanksville, where he made remarks in 2018. Mr Biden spoke at the memorial’s dedication in 2011, when he was vice president.
The 2,200-acre Flight 93 National Memorial marks the spot in rural Pennsylvania where the hijacked flight crashed, killing all 40 people on board. Three other planes hijacked that day were crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon. Nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks.