They gathered in the early-morning light Friday at the Hempstead Town Park at Lido Beach to honor those killed in the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and to salute the thousands of first responders who worked to save lives and to identify remains from the twin towers in the days, weeks and months after they were shattered by hijacked passenger jets.
Spectators brought chairs, masks and coffee mugs and huddled against their vehicles in the parking lot as gray skies finally gave way to sunshine. They socially distanced, as requested by Town Supervisor Donald Clavin Jr.
But the star of the 19th annual memorial service was a man who wasn't even there — Luis G. Alvarez, a New York City bomb squad detective who worked on the pile, as ground zero was initially called.
Alvarez, 53, died on June 29, 2019, a few weeks after delivering dramatic testimony to Congress that successfully extended the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. He died of complications of cancer linked to his work at ground zero.
Luis's brother, Phil, the keynote speaker at the ceremony in Lido Beach, said his brother "died in peace, knowing that the bill would probably pass."
"Thank you for never forgetting," Phil Alvarez told the hushed crowd. "That's what my brother would have wanted, that you would never forget." His brother, he said, wasn't a big talker, but when he talked, he made people either laugh or listen closely because he had something important to say.
"There are a lot of Lou Alvarezes out there," Phil said. "It was 19 years ago that my brother's body began to die. But it was also when his soul began to live. He had a purpose in life, to warn others of the health dangers associated with working on the pile."
"Lou called me up one day and he said, 'Bro, I got Stage Four.'"
"I said, 'What are we going to do?'"
"He said, 'We're going to beat this bitch.'"
And, Phil said, in many ways, his brother did.
"He said, 'I need to get in touch with my friends. I need to warn them about the health hazards.'"
Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul came from her hometown of Buffalo to join the crowd in Lido. "These are truly extraordinary times," Hochul said, referring to the coronavirus pandemic and the need to wear masks and separate. "But we will still gather," she added. "This is where we need to be."
Hochul and Clavin later laid a new wreath at the Memorial Wall in the park. Luis Alvarez's name was added to the wall.
Clavin, who served as master of ceremonies, noted at the outset that 2020 "started as a normal year. Then, in March, everything changed for everybody. The sounds we heard all the time were sirens of ambulances, taking people to hospitals. But that's what first responders do."
The event was also marked by prayers by the Rev. Michael Duffy, of St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Center; Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky, of Yeshiva of the South Shore in Hewlett; and the Rev. Eric C. Mallette, of the Greater Second Baptist Church in Freeport. There were musical selections by the Gregorian Consortium of Kellenberg Memorial High School in Uniondale. led by Diretor Alexander Basile.
Mallette, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps, said people were expecting a prayer. But, he said, he also wanted to make a statement, calling on the spectators to love their country and "support the USA. If anyone wants to leave this country, they can go. I guarantee, no one will stop them," Mallette said to applause.
Valerie Laupheimer, of North Bellmore, was among the first to arrive at the park, at 6 a.m.
On Sept. 11, 2001, she recalled, she was working for the credit-rating agency Moody's, across the street from the twin towers. Laupheimer said she had heard a loud bang, but thought it was just part of the city's usual background noise. Her sister, she said, worked a few floors above her, and called to tell her to look out the window.
"I did see an explosion," Laupheimer said. "But I didn't know it was an airplane." She learned that it was soon afterward. She left the building shortly after 9 a.m. and walked to the 59th Street Bridge, but couldn't get through the crowds, so she walked to the Brooklyn Bridge. She got a lift home from Brooklyn, arriving at home after 7 p.m.
"I was in disbelief," Laupheimer said of the day, as she stood at the edge of the crowd in the park Friday morning. "I'm still so devastated. So many people went to work that day, as I did, and they didn't come home."