This story was reported by Robert Brodsky, Nicole Brown, Matthew Chayes, Ivan Pereira and Maya Rajamani. It was written by Brodsky.
The mourners took their time moving around the reflecting pools, their minds seemingly lost in the moment, sent back to that crystal-clear Tuesday morning 18 years ago when everything changed.
They carried flags, flowers and balloons and cupped photos of the lost close to their chest — anything to provide comfort or relief from the pain that returns again and again.
And they searched though the nearly 3,000 names etched into the bronze memorial looking for their loved ones who never came home.
Thousands of families, residents and law enforcement officers crowded the 9/11 Memorial Plaza Wednesday morning on the anniversary of the deadliest terrorist attacks on American soil. They were joined by city and state officials, those in office today and on Sept. 11, 2001.
The faces have aged but were all too familiar. The pilgrimage to Ground Zero has become an annual ritual, a journey they must take no matter the emotional toll.
"Time has a way of erasing memories," said George Bachmann, 68, of Park Slope, a retired FDNY firefighter who was injured while responding to the attacks. "But for those who were here, it means a lot."
The nearly three-and-a-half-hour ceremony began at 8:39 a.m. with the piercing echo from the NYPD Emerald Society Pipes & Drums.
One by one, family members, many with blue ribbons pinned to their clothes, stepped forward to slowly read the names of the 2,983 people killed during the attacks at the World Trade Center, Pentagon, aboard Flight 93 and during the World Trade Center bombing on Feb. 26, 1993.
Some wore T-shirts that read, "We will never forget." Another read: "When I said 'I would never forget' I meant it!"
When it was their turn, they spoke of parents or uncles they never had an opportunity to meet, vowing to make them proud. They recalled moments of laughter and misery, promising to meet again one day in the future.
The roll call of names was interrupted only for the tolling of six bells, first marking the moments the north and south tower were struck by hijacked jetliners. The bells rang again at the moment when an airliner crashed into the Pentagon, near Washington, D.C., and just before 10 a.m. when Tower Two collapsed. Four minutes later, the bells rang again to mark the moment when a hijacked airliner crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and finally at the moment Tower One fell.
Margie Miller, 68, of Baldwin, lost her husband, Joel Miller, 55, who was working at Marsh & McLennan on the 97th Floor of Tower One.
“I’m here, and I felt very compelled to come," she said. "Most of us have few remains; 40 percent of us have no remains. So in many, many ways this is our cemetery … I feel I have learned to live with the grief and not in the grief, and so there’s a healing peace to being here and being with this community.”
Among the approximately 2,700 people who died in the World Trade Center attacks, 455 were from Long Island, which held its own ceremonies Wednesday in Point Lookout, Islip and Commack.
And the death toll continues to grow, now counting among its victims the first responders and everyday New Yorkers who were exposed to toxins unleashed after the planes hit and the towers collapsed. Roughly 10,000 people have said they were sickened by the toxins.
In May, the city opened the 9/11 Memorial Glade — six massive 17-ton slabs of granite — at the pathway near the 9/11 Memorial and Museum to honor the first responders who became ill or later died from exposure at Ground Zero.
La-Shawn Clark, 53, said she can still feel the touch of her husband, Benjamin Keefe Clark, who was working as an executive chef at Fiduciary Trust Co. International in Tower Two. Benjamin, she said, went back into the building to help get people out. She and their five children never got his body back — only remains.
Their first grandchild, a girl, is due next month.
“This year’s been a rough year, because my husband has missed college graduations, he’s missed weddings," said Clark, who has moved from Brooklyn to Pennsylvania. "This is our first grandbaby. And he’s not going to be here to be a part of that."
The memorial, she said, helps her feel closer to her husband.
“There’s never closure, but when I come here, when the wind blows, it’s like a kiss to me," she said. "If the sun is shining, it’s a reminder of the lives that he’s touched. If it’s dewdrops, I can feel his touch. And I know when I look at my children, I know he’d be very proud of all of them.”
Brittany Gordon, 31, and her husband, Daniel Gordon, 37, attend the memorial ceremony every year. Gordon's aunt and uncle, Sylvia Resta and John Resta, were working for Carr Futures on the 92nd floor of Tower One when the planes hit.
Sylvia was seven-and-a-half months pregnant with the couple's first baby that day. Eighteen years later, Gordon is now seven-and-a-half months pregnant with her second baby.
“I didn’t think about it until this morning, that I’m almost at the same point that she was,” Gordon said. “Some years, it’s easier, and some years, it’s not. And I think that this year is a little bit harder, and I wasn’t really sure why … It just makes you think a lot about how much they’ve missed — of our family, of our lives. And how much we missed of theirs.”