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Twenty years on, bagpipes mark humanity’s toll on 9/11

The pipe and drum bands of emergency services that responded to the plane crashes at the World Trade Center have held weekly tribute at the national memorial since 2014.

MANHATTAN (CN) — Brian Ahern stood on the edge of the National 9/11 Memorial, away from the visitors who came to gaze upon the pools. Around his waist wrapped the kilt of blue tartan of the Port Authority Police Department, and a small American flag flew on the bass drone of his bagpipe.

The bagpiper, who had played at many of the funerals two decades before, had come to hold the weekly tribute at 9/11 Ground Zero.

On a typical Wednesday afternoon shortly after 1 p.m., a piper each from the pipe and drum bands of the Port Authority Police Department, New York City Fire Department and New York Police Department will gather to play a bagpipe tribute at the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

“Hearing bagpipes is one thing, but seeing us play and being able to hear us is, I think, a different way of looking at it,” said Ahern, a Port Authority police officer and pipe major of the Port Authority police band. “When you start seeing the different patches that we all wear … the different tartans that we wear, I think people that come down here to visit the 9/11 Memorial, it kind of brings them to a sense of, ‘OK, these three departments took big losses that day.’”

When it started in May of 2014, the bagpipers typically played inside the museum.

But the pandemic, the looming 20th anniversary of the attack and the remnants of Hurricane Ida threw typical all out the window that first Wednesday of September.

Covid-19 had forced the bagpipers outside onto the memorial, into the siren-sounding, bus-rumbling, construction-banging air of New York City. And the lead-up to the 20th anniversary of 9/11 brought with it more dedications and memorials, tying up the musicians’ schedules.

“He's telling me that they're booked,” said Ahern, glancing at his phone. It would just be him this time.

“So, you know, it happens. But again, one out of three ain't bad.”

A bouquet of flowers rests along the South Pool at the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum. (Daniel Jackson/Courthouse News)

The rain, so far, had held off. Though, the wind tossed up the silvery undersides of the leaves of the oak trees standing in straight rows and played with the water falling, ever falling, in the memorial pools, mist blown back up on the people paying their respects above.

It was about 1:01 p.m. when Ahern slipped his glengarry cap on his head and ducked behind a building to warm up.

Ahern stepped out into the memorial glade, a portion of the site dedicated to the people who became sick after responding to the attack, in which sits six granite blocks embedded with World Trade Center steel. He stood facing north, the 1776 feet of tower that is One World Trade Center and the survivor tree within view.

The bagpipe that sounded at the funerals of so many 9/11 victims began to hum and Ahern started to play.

Ahern, who has played the bagpipes for 32 years, began learning the instrument when he was 12 at the urging of a friend’s father. About a year later, once the young piper developed the strength to handle it, he graduated from the chanter, an instrument similar to that of a recorder, to the bagpipes his father bought him.

The bagpipes, Ahern said, play a big role in the culture of the police department, hearkening back to the days when Irish and Italian immigrants took the jobs because the positions were seen as less desirable.

“For the pipe band, we're a big part of a police officer's career,” Ahern said. “We start with you at graduation. We're with you during the whole career, and we're with you at the end whether or not it's retirement which is what we all would like to see. Or, God forbid, that of a funeral.”

He even played at a kid’s birthday party.

Ahern graduated from the Port Authority’s police academy the summer before 9/11. On that day, he worked at the George Washington Bridge.

“Normally as a rookie, you would try to learn the job before you start to do anything other than the job itself,” Ahern said, but the pipe major at the time asked him to help play the large number of funerals in the aftermath of the attack.

It was the start of Ahern’s career plying the bagpipe in the Port Authority: Songs like “Amazing Grace” and “Going Home” played to honor the fallen and hopefully bring a measure of closure for their families, he said.

Ahern lost track of the number of 9/11 funerals he played. According to the Port Authority Police Department, 37 of its officers died on 9/11.

During the tribute, visitors stop. Some seem to record Ahern. It was a quiet day at the memorial, according to Ahern.

Four songs, “America the Beautiful” at the end. As he played the last few measures, Ahern turned and walked away.

“Anytime that we're able to be down here to play for those that either died on 9/11 or died after 9/11 due to illness or injury, it's an honor. It's an honor for us to make sure that their memories are being respected,” he said.

Now silent bagpipe in hand, Ahern crossed the intersection to his parked car. He had once again given his tribute.

Bagpiper Brian Ahern plays in the Memorial Glade at the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. (Daniel Jackson/Courthouse News)

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