It is a familiar New York ritual that is, at turns, heartbreaking and comforting.
Seventeen years after 9/11, thousands gathered again in lower Manhattan Tuesday to show that the victims of the worst attack on the United States will never be forgotten and are still loved.
Mourners read aloud the names of 2,983 people who died, family members placed flowers on memorial plaques for the missing, and New Yorkers took stock of how the damage from that day continues.
Chundera Epps used her brief time at the microphone at the Ground Zero ceremony to tell her brother Christopher about the pain of his absence over the years.
"We never got to see you get married or have any kids, or something as simple as playing with an Xbox or talking on an iPhone," said Epps, of the Bronx. "Even our first black president."
She talked about the importance of commemorating this national tragedy by returning to read the names year after year.
"Because soldiers are still dying for our freedom," Epps said. "Because first responders are still dying and becoming ill, and people who live and work around here are still getting sick.
"We can't forget. God won't let us forget."
For New Yorkers, the attack on their home city and the loss of so many lives, including people they knew, continues to evoke powerful emotions.
Gray skies thickened the somber mood as the ceremony began at about 8:30 a.m. at the 9/11 Memorial. Families of those who died raised photos and signs high as a bell rang out at 8:46 a.m., memorializing the moment when the first terrorist-hijacked plane struck the north tower of the Twin Towers.
A stillness descended over the crowd as the procession began with the American flag carried into Ground Zero by police and fire department members in dress uniforms. The singing of the national anthem seemed a bit more mournful than usual.
Sgt. Edwin Morales, an Army Reserve member, was dressed in full uniform and carried a framed photo collage of his cousin, firefighter Ruben Correa, who was killed at the hotel at 3 World Trade Center.
The collage was made by a student from Maryland for a class project and was presented to Morales on Tuesday morning.
“He’s here with us now,” Morales said of his cousin. “Never forget this day. Never forget anyone who died.”
The crowd included numerous dignitaries, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Rep. Peter King, and former mayors Michael Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani.
The emotional core of the 9/11 ceremony remains the hourslong reading of the names of those who perished. One by one, people read lists of names, ending with some personal words about their own loved one now gone.
Jim Winters, brother-in-law of Carl Molinaro, ended by saying he'd like to read a short note from Molinaro's children, Carl and Sabrina.
“The best compliment we receive is that we are a lot like you," said the children's missive. "We know wherever we go in life we carry you with us.”
Husbands remembered the smiles of their wives, wives talked about the courage of their husbands, and children blessed grandparents they never met.
The tragedy of Sept. 11 still runs deep in the memories of New Yorkers.
Maria Petraglia, 52, of Howard Beach, Queens, was six months pregnant and sitting at her desk on Broad Street when the first plane torpedoed into the north tower.
“When the towers collapsed everything turned dark," she said, standing where the Twin Towers stood.
At the first sign of light she and her co-workers left their Broad Street building. She recalled: “A guy at work gave me the keys to his car. It took five hours to get home but I didn’t have to walk over bridges and streets that were covered in dust . . . New Yorkers became brothers and sisters after that day and it lasted a long time.”
Port Authority Det. Frank Accardi said he had been working inside the Trade Center’s precinct and was manning the mobile communication command center. When the towers collapsed, it went pitch dark outside, so thick was the dust blowing in the air. From inside the center, he heard a sound and went to help.
"We could hear the beeping of the first responders' oxygen tanks," Accardi said. "We reached for them and grabbed them and pulled them inside the command center and poured water on them from the 5-gallon water cooler jug. We were pulling cement out of their mouths."
Still on the job, Accardi was on duty this Tuesday morning.
“Coming here brings me closer to the guys I was with that day," he said.
Across from Ground Zero, another smaller tribute took place. At a firehouse on Greenwich Street, the Second Wing Marine Corps Band played a solemn version of “My Wild Irish Rose’’ and “Taps.’’
FDNY Chief James Leonard told the crowd of about 200, "We must make sure we always remember. We must always remember every single firefighter.’’
The crowd heard how FDNY Captain Gerald Chipura, whose brother John Chipura, 39, perished in the collapse of the World Trade Center, became a firefighter to honor his brother’s commitment to public service.
“I followed him to help others," he said.
The name-reading ceremony at Ground Zero ended with "Taps." Some people spent private moments by the plaque for their loved ones beside the memorial pool. Some placed a flower upon it. Some rested their head against it.
Rubiela Arzias, 52, of Queens, said she returns every year to hear the names of those killed. She was one of hundreds of people who arrived days after the attacks to remove, sponge and wipe off the dust and debris that seeped into the windows of nearby buildings.
“We are part of this story," said Arzias, who added that she now has trouble breathing, her skin breaks out in rashes and she has muscular disorders.
“I don’t have any regrets about being here after the attacks," she said. "It happened and now we have to live.’’
With Maria Alvarez