They blew kisses to the sky, held aloft pictures of smiling women and men so deeply mourned, knelt to write messages of love on the wooden frames that evoked the footprints of the World Trade Center towers, and with great care lay roses and sunflowers in the two pools of water there and on the ground.
In lower Manhattan, where the 110-story towers once stood, three years of heartbreak was fresh as parents and grandparents called the 2,749 names of what one father described as the "young, beautiful, talented lives that were lost" at the trade center.
The first-year anniversary after the nation's worst terrorist attack, the roll of the dead was read by government officials and some relatives. Last year, the children of those lost stood at the microphones and spoke of fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, uncles and aunts, stepfathers and stepmothers.
Yesterday, on the stage at the western side of the 16-acre site, 200 people - most of them mothers and fathers - came to podiums in pairs to read the names. Upon completing his or her apportionment of about 14 names, nearly every reader bestowed their own son's or daughter's name, along with an endearment or message in voices that often quavered and sometimes broke: "my beautiful daughter," "my precious son," "the light of our world," "our tower of strength."
An indescribable pain "It has been said that a child who loses a parent is an orphan," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said as the ceremony began. "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."
The ceremony started promptly at 8:40 a.m., to the poignant strains of Dvorak's "New World" symphony by a bagpipe and drums corps from the fire and police departments, as the flag that flew at the trade center until October 2001 was carried to the stage.
Four times, the ceremony paused for moments of silence: at 8:46 and 9:03, the times two hijacked jets hit the north tower and then the south tower, and at 9:59 and 10:29, the times the buildings collapsed.
As at past Sept. 11 anniversaries, government officials reached into history for words of comfort and sustenance. At separate points during the ceremony, which lasted about 3 1/2 hours, the mayor spoke of King David's grief at the death of his son, Absalom; Gov. George Pataki quoted President Dwight D. Eisenhower, writing of soldiers lost in World War II; and former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani read the famous letter President Abraham Lincoln wrote to the Massachusetts widow who lost five sons in the Civil War.
Tracing lost footsteps
For the most part, relatives and friends of the victims stood in front of the stage, at ground level on West Street, until their relative's name was called, and then they strode to the ramp into the pit and walked seven stories down to what many of them consider sacred ground. With construction efforts at Ground Zero under way for a multibillion-dollar complex including a memorial, mass-transit hub and office buildings, the families may not be able to make that ritual trek on Sept. 11 next year.
"I imagine, and it makes me happy, that this is where he walked," said Brenda Trinidad, 34, of Pelham, who lost her brother Michael Trinidad, 33, who worked at the financial firm Cantor Fitzgerald.
"It takes some strength to be here," said Trinidad, who has come to each anniversary ceremony. "I think it is so important that we can walk on the footprints. I hope they don't take that away."
Raul Correa, 75, of upstate Plattekill, had never been to the site where his firefighter nephew died until yesterday. Because the area may not be open at this time next year, though, he decided he must attend.
"It was too emotional, but now that I know that it might be the last time, I thought I should come," said Correa, whose nephew Ruben David Correa was assigned to Ladder Company 74. "I'm glad I did."
As the victims' names continued to be read, some mourners in the pit stooped and knelt beside the two square pools of water and wrote messages on the wood framework. Reflecting the community that worked there, the messages were in English, Spanish and what appeared to be Japanese and Korean.
In black ink, someone drew a heart and wrote "Miss U Wendy" within it. Others read, "We miss you Dad," "Rest in peace," "Vives en my corazon, Paola" and "Mi amor, Papi."
A small group of children, at 4 and 5 too young to remember the relatives who perished, picked up pebbles and did what came naturally, tossing the rocks into the water.
Barbara Pandolfo, 66, of Mahwah, N.J., was clutching a bunch of sunflowers, her daughter Dominique's favorites.
"This is for her," she said of her 27-year-old daughter, who worked for Marsh & McClennan at a different office but happened to be at the company's trade center location for a meeting on Sept. 11. "This may be the last time I can come and be so close to where she was."
Call to fight terror
Even with the recent conclusion of the Republican National Convention, which the GOP held for the first time ever in New York, and the presidential election less than two months away, yesterday was almost exclusively apolitical. Only one sign spotted at Ground Zero was directed at President George W. Bush, and it referred to the site itself, reading, "Pres Bush, Match the courage of the victims, Preserve the bedrock."
Bloomberg, speaking later at St. Peter's Church during a service for 90 Port Authority employees killed at the trade center in 1993 and 2001, was even more forceful in words and tone than he was at Ground Zero.
"We owe it to those we lost to unite in defiance against such terror," the mayor said, without mentioning by name al-Qaida, the terrorist group headed by Osama bin Laden that masterminded and funded the attacks.
"We are not going to bow to their demands. We are not going to cower in fear. You only have to read the history books to see that the policy of appeasement doesn't work," he said. "Instead, we will fight back. We will meet those vicious threats head-on and with all our might. We stand united in our resolve and our grief."
In honor of heroes
While much of the day's ritual was centered on Ground Zero, special church services and other events were scattered throughout the city, as well as elsewhere in the nation. Other observances included a Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in midtown led by Cardinal Edward Egan, and an evening dedication of a memorial on Staten Island in honor of the borough's 271 residents who died in the 2001 attack and the 1993 trade center bombing. At sunset, shortly after 7 p.m., the twin beams of the "Tribute in Light" were illuminated and were to shine until dawn today.
James Nolan, 29, of Port Jervis, a firefighter with Engine Company 23, was at the service at St. Patrick's and remembering his colleagues among the 343 members of the Fire Department who died that day.
"I will never be able to fill their shoes," Nolan said. "They are heroes. I am just a firefighter."
At a special service at Trinity Lutheran Church in Astoria, parishioner Natalia Paruz told the congregation of her mission to Jerusalem, carrying a stone from Ground Zero that she placed in the Western Wall.
"It's considered an extremely holy place and you feel a little bit closer to God than anywhere else," said Paruz. "It feels like you have a direct line of prayer."
A palpable sadness
Throughout the day, people mentioned feeling the odd dichotomy of time's passage: so many days gone since the catastrophe, yet how like yesterday it still seems.
"We just wish we weren't here," said Dorothy Blanding, 63, who was at Ground Zero with her husband, Harry Blanding, 62. Their son, Harry Blanding Jr., 38, an insurance specialist for Aon Corp., left behind a wife and three children.
"We feel like individuals in a crowd of thousands," she said. "We feel alone even though we're around a lot of people, like it's only us, even though we know it's not."
Andy Meijer and his mother, Monique, 43, who were visiting New York from the Netherlands, stood at the edge of the site during the ceremony.
The 12-year-old was wearing a blue baseball hat with a decoration showing the Twin Towers, and he was crying.
"You can feel the sadness here of everybody remembering the people who died," he said.