They brought bouquets of flowers, framed photos and an outpouring of tears to the pit that was once the World Trade Center, where two airplanes attacked the twin towers three years ago Saturday.
At what has become known as Ground Zero, moments of silence were observed at 8:46, 9:03, 9:59 and 10:29 a.m., the times when the airplanes hit the towers and when the towers collapsed into Lower Manhattan.
Over more than three hours, parents and grandparents read the names of the 2,749 people killed in the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Voices in deep baritone, fragile and tearful, and tinted with Spanish and Italian, reverberated across the 16-acre site. Some punctuated the loved ones' names with messages of "we miss you," "we love you," or announcements of new additions to the family.
Hector Garcia read the name of his 21-year-old daughter, Marlyn, who worked in the North Tower. He held a large photo of the young woman with a shy smile.
Afterward, he said, "You come here to leave a piece of your heart at a place where you lost something."
Gov. George E. Pataki, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and former mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani delivered readings that focused on the pain of losing a child. Pataki quoted President Dwight D. Eisenhower as saying, "There's no tragedy in life like the death of a child. Things never get back to the way they were."
The governor then read a note left by a woman who lost her son. She had written: "To the world he may have been just one person, to me, he was the world."
Alice Thomas pinned a photograph of her sister, Valsa Raju, to her sari and came to the place where the young mother had drawn her last breath. After three years, she said, "For us, nothing changes; the small children are without their mother."
Moments of silence were also observed at Arlington National Cemetery to honor the 184 people who died when another plane barreled into the Pentagon. Relatives gathered near Shanksville, Pa., where United Airlines Flight 93 went down, killing 40 passengers on board.
At Ground Zero, the anniversary drew people indirectly affected by the terrorist attacks but whose lives were dramatically altered on that day in 2001.
Harry Wunsch turned his Chrysler New Yorker into a moving memorial and dubbed it the 9/11 car. The roof bears signatures and notes of bereaved family members, firefighters and police officers he met at each of the three sites.
Before each anniversary, Wunsch and his sons set out to New York from his Sacramento home on a journey "from sea to shining sea, from heaven's gate to hell's gate."
"We're trying to touch one heart at a time," he said. "We're finding out that people are forgetting."
Esty and Dovi Scheiner were married on the day of the attacks but nearly canceled the ceremony. They decided to go ahead after a rabbi advised them that they had a chance to be part of a battle between good and evil.
The couple decided to dedicate their lives and marriage to helping the victims' families recover from the attacks. They moved into the nearby Battery Park neighborhood, distributed bread to neighbors and became a sounding board to relatives drawn to the site in search of answers. Earlier in the week, the Scheiners hosted a Jewish memorial service.
"We must affirm a positive response; we have to show resilience and the American spirit," said Dovi Scheiner.
On this anniversary, Scheiner said he sees the reopening of businesses and residents moving back as proof that, as New Yorkers, "our efforts here have flourished."
The anniversary drew peaceful protesters who accused the U.S. government of hiding information related to the terrorist attacks. The occasion also inspired people, including victims' families, to draw attention to the ongoing conflicts and human toll in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"We honor the victims of 9/11 by killing the people of Iraq," read one sign.
Lt. George Quevedo said the attack site is a daily reminder of the 50 friends and fellow firefighters he knew who died in the attacks. "Sometimes you look at the emptiness, and it's really hard."