Three years after terrorists ripped a hole in the heart of the city and shook the nation, the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks gathered once again at the site of the tragedy to grieve Saturday morning.
Three years later, there are many signs of healing and moving on. The pit where the twin towers once stood is now a busy construction site. Across the street, the rebuilt 7 World Trade Center is rising back up into the sky, now more than 40 stories tall.
In the year since the last anniversary, a panel selected a permanent memorial to honor the dead: two recessed pools outlining the emptiness where the twin towers once stood. The 20-ton cornerstone of what will become the tallest building in the world, the Freedom Tower, was laid on July Fourth. And thousands of commuters stream through the reopened World Trade Center PATH station each day.
Yet, for an event whose devastation spanned so much distance, took so many lives and affected the world so drastically that it can only be spoken by its date, September 11 will never pass without reflection and sadness for the generations who witnessed it.
And for those who lost husbands and wives, fathers and mothers and sons and daughters, three years have not passed. The pain, especially on this day, is fresh.
“Today, again we meet in great sadness,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said as Saturday’s memorial ceremony at the World Trade Center site began. “It has been said that a child who loses a parent is an orphan. A man who loses his wife is a widower. A woman who loses her husband is a widow. There is no name for a parent who loses a child, for there are no words to describe this pain.”
Parents and grandparents of the 2,749 victims read each name aloud, choking up as they added poignant personal messages when they reached the names of their own loved ones. Other family members embraced each other and dried tears.
“Remembering you is easy — we do it every day,” one mother said in a message directed toward her son. “It's the heartache of losing you that never goes away.”
Soft violin music played in the background as the families descended the long ramp into the site. Two square reflecting pools set up for the ceremony slowly filled up with flowers and other mementos left by the families. As construction proceeds, this will likely be the last time the relatives touch the bedrock, which many of them consider sacred ground because so few remains were recovered.
The seemingly endless recitation of names paused for four moments of silence, at the times hijacked airliners came out of the clear blue sky and slammed into each of the twin towers and the times they fell, buckling under hellish fires.
“It feels like time stands still — it doesn’t fell like three years at all,” said Linda Paccetta, who lost her brother when the skyscrapers collapsed. “You come back here and you see that they’re rebuilding, and you realize we're moving on and things are changing. The only thing I look forward to around this time is getting to the people again, meeting the other people who know exactly what we’re going through, because they have the same loss.”
Many of the victims’ relatives, whose very public loss made them recognizable simply as “the families,” have formed one big family of their own. “I know everyone here,” said William Healy, who lost his niece. “We've become family in grief and loss, and I feel like it's my family. I love coming and doing this.”
Mayor Bloomberg, former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Governor George Pataki and New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevy each delivered readings during the ceremony. Pataki quoted former President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s description of the losses of World War II: “There's no tragedy in life like the death of a child. Things never get back to the way they were.”
Giuliani read a letter that President Abraham Lincoln wrote to a woman who lost five sons to the Civil War, saying, “Leave you only the cherished memory of the love and loss and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”
The four-hour ceremony concluded with trumpeters from the Police and Fire departments performing "Taps."
“I think the people who were here, who experienced it, and for the people who lost loved ones on that day think about it every day in some way,” said Bernard Kerik, the police commissioner at the time of the attacks. “It never goes away. There’s a constant reminder in some way, of someone or of something. Today is just a reminder that we can’t forget.”
Meanwhile, the NYPD held a roll call of the 23 officers from the department killed in the September 11 attacks. “You can’t dwell on it of course,” said one officer. You have to go out and do what you have to do. It’s always in the back of your mind; it’s always back there.”
The Police Department is also mourning the loss of two detectives who were gunned down in Brooklyn Friday night. “It’s very somber,” said another officer. “Last night he had two detectives lose their lives, so it really hits home. It makes you think. It makes you value things in life.”
The Fire Department, which lost 343 members in the attacks, also held remembrances at firehouses across the city. Engine Company 235/Batallion 57 Bedford-Stuyvesant dedicated a memorial to the six members who died, known as the “Monroe Six” for the street the firehouse is on.
“I'm happy and ecstatic,” said JoAnn Cross, the widow of the battalion chief, who donated the black granite memorial. “This was a happy time to finally get this up and see the guys at the firehouse. This turnout is wonderful. It makes us happy.”
Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said firefighters are recovering from the devastating loss. “In years past, it was difficult to get firefighters into [counseling programs],” he said. “They wanted to deal with it themselves. I think by now they recognize that a little counseling can go a long way.”
Following the ceremony at the trade center site, the Port Authority, which built the World Trade Center and lost 84 employees in its destruction, held its annual service nearby. The first two anniversaries it was held uptown in Riverside Church, but this year it moved downtown to St. Peter’s Church.
“The courage and selflessness of every Port Authority employee at the World Trade Center that day still really shines as an example of to all of us,” said Mayor Bloomberg, “an example of what makes a great New Yorker, a great American and a great human being."
Throughout the day, the church will toll a massive bell 3,000 times in honor of the victims, once every 10 seconds.
On Staten Island, a memorial to the borough’s victims will be dedicated on the waterfront in the evening. The memorial features two tall, windswept structures resembling postcards, with plaques featuring the silhouette of each victim and personal information about them.
At sundown, the "Tribute in Light", two beams directed skyward to form a ghost-like image of the twin towers, will shine through the night.
The September 11 anniversary was also observed around the nation. President George Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, along with Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne, observed a moment of silence on the White House lawn after attending a prayer service at nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church.
“Time has past, but the memories do not fade,” the president said in his weekly radio address after the ceremony. “We remember the images of fire and the final calls of love and the courage of rescuers who saw death and did not flee. We remember the cruelty of enemies who murdered the innocent and rejoiced in our suffering. We remember the many good lives that ended too soon, which no one had the right to take.”
A wreath-laying ceremony was held at Arlington National Cemetery, and a moment of silence was marked the time the third hijacked airliner struck the Pentagon, killing 184 people. “The wound that was opened three years ago will always be with us — we know that,” said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. “Yet our grief has found its purpose. September 11 was a call to arms, and once again brave men and women from our country have deployed abroad to defend freedom.”
At the field in Pennsylvania where the fourth plane crashed after passengers fought back against the hijackers, relatives mourned the 40 people who died there. A wreath was laid at the crash site, and a bell tolled as each victim’s name was read. A design competition was also announced for a permanent memorial at the site.
For comprehensive online coverage of the third 9/11 anniversary, as well as a schedule of NY1's live coverage of Saturday's commemorative events, see NY1.com's special WTC Section.