With the solemn toll of a bell and a moment of silence, the nation paused Thursday to mark the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attack.
Family and friends of those who died read the names of the nearly 3,000 people killed in New York, at the Pentagon and near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Thelma Stuart, whose husband Walwyn Wellington Stuart, Jr., 28, was a Port Authority Police Department officer, said the nation should pray for its leaders, "that God will grant them wisdom, knowledge and understanding on directing them on moving forward."
The sad roll call was to pause only four times: to mark the times when the first plane struck the World Trade Center, when the second plane struck, when the first tower fell and when the second tower fell.
Joanne Barbara, whose husband of 30 years, Gerard Barbara, was a FDNY captain who died, urged all to feel for not only the lost but "those who continue to suffer from the aftermath."
"May God bless America, and may we never, never forget," she said.
Little about the annual ceremony at ground zero has changed. But so much around it has.
For the first time, the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum — which includes gut-wrenching artifacts and graphic photos of the attacks — is open. Fences around the memorial plaza have come down, integrating the sacred site more fully with the streets of Manhattan while completely opening it up to the public and camera-wielding tourists.
A new mayor is in office, Bill de Blasio, one far less linked to the attacks and their aftermath than his immediate predecessors. And finally, a nearly completed One World Trade Center has risen 1,776 feet above ground zero and will be filled with office workers by this date in 2015, another sign that a page in the city's history may be turning.
But painful memories were still acute and lingering. Franklin Murray of New York wore a shirt with a photo of his brother, Harry Glen, who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald, one of the companies most decimated.
He said it gave him a "funny feeling" to know there was now a memorial. He has come to the ceremony before but "before it was getting harder, so I forced myself to get down here."
"Coming down to the area is rough," he said.
For some, the increasing feel of a return to normalcy in the area threatens to obscure the tragedy that took place there and interfere with their grief.
"Instead of a quiet place of reflection, it's where kids are running around," said Nancy Nee, whose firefighter brother, George Cain, was killed in the attacks. "Some people forget this is a cemetery. I would never go to the Holocaust museum and take a selfie."
But for others, the changes are an important part of the healing process.
"When I first saw (One World Trade Center), it really made my heart sing," said Debra Burlingame, whose brother Charles Burlingame was the pilot of the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. "It does every time I see it because it's so symbolic of what the country went through."
"I want to see it bustling," she said. "I want to see more housing down there; I want to see it alive and bursting with businesses."
The memorial plaza will be closed to the public for most of the day and available only to family members. It will reopen at 6 p.m., at which point thousands of New Yorkers are expected to mark the anniversary at the twin reflecting pools where the towers once stood.
The first ceremony at the site was held six months after the Twin Towers fell and was organized by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his aides. Bloomberg, who took office just three months after the attacks, remained in charge, acting as the master of ceremonies for the next decade. He attended on Thursday.
After other elected officials attempted to gain a larger role at the solemn event, in 2012, all politicians — including Bloomberg — were prohibited from speaking at the event. That remains the case now.
President Obama delivered a speech at the 9/11 memorial, below is the full text:
Good morning. Scripture tells us, “We count as blessed those who have persevered.”
Secretary Hagel, General Dempsey, members of our Armed Forces, and, most of all, the survivors of that September day and the families of those we lost –- Michelle and I are humbled to be with you once again.
It has now been 13 years. Thirteen years since the peace of an American morning was broken. Thirteen years since nearly 3,000 beautiful lives were taken from us, including 125 men and women serving here at the Pentagon. Thirteen years of moments they would have shared with us. Thirteen years of memories they would have made.
Here, once more, we pray for the souls of those we remember, for you, their families, who love them forever, and for a nation that has been inspired by your example -- your determination to carry on, your resolve to live lives worthy of their memories.
As Americans, we draw strength from you. For your love is the ultimate rebuke to the hatred of those who attacked us that bright, blue morning. They sought to do more than bring down buildings or murder our people. They sought to break our spirit and to prove to the world that their power to destroy was greater than our power to persevere and to build. But you, and America, proved them wrong.
America endures in the strength of your families who, through your anguish, kept living. You have kept alive a love that no act of terror can ever extinguish. You, their sons and daughters, are growing into extraordinary young men and women they knew you could be. By your shining example, your families have turned this day into something that those who attacked us could never abide, and that is a tribute of hope over fear, and love over hate.
America endures in the tenacity of our survivors. After grievous wounds, you learned to walk again and stand again. After terrible burns, you smiled once more. For you, for our nation, these have been difficult years. But by your presence here today, in the lives of service that you have led, you embody the truth that no matter what comes our way, America will always come out stronger.
America endures in the dedication of those who keep us safe. The firefighter, the officer, the EMT who carries the memory of a fallen partner as they report to work each and every day, prepared to make the same sacrifice for us all. Because of these men and women, Americans now work in a gleaming Freedom Tower. We visit our great cities, we fill our stadiums and cheer for our teams. We carry on, because, as Americans, we do not give in to fear -- ever.
America endures in the courage of the men and women who serve under our flag. Over more than a decade of war, this 9/11 Generation has answered our country’s call, and three months from now, our combat mission in Afghanistan will come to an end. Today, we honor all who have made the ultimate sacrifice these 13 years, more than 6,800 American patriots. And we give thanks to those who serve in harm’s way to keep our country safe and meet the threats of our time.
America endures in that perennial optimism that defines us as a people. Beginning tomorrow, there will be teenagers –- young adults –- who were born after 9/11. It’s remarkable. And while these young Americans did not know the horrors of that day, their lives have been shaped by all the days since -- a time that has brought us pain, but also taught us endurance and strength; a time of rebuilding, of resilience, and of renewal. What gives us hope –- what gives me hope -– is that it is these young Americans who will shape all the days to come.
Thirteen years after small and hateful minds conspired to break us, America stands tall and America stands proud. And guided by the values that sustain us, we will only grow stronger. Generations from now, Americans will still fill our parks, our stadiums, our cities. Generations from now, Americans will still build towers that reach toward the heavens; still serve in embassies that stand for freedom around the world; still wear the uniform and give meaning to those words written two centuries ago: Land of the free. Home of the Brave. Generations from now, no matter the trial, no matter the challenge, America will always be America.
“We count as blessed those who have persevered.”
May God bless your families, who continue to inspire us all. May God bless our Armed Forces and all who serve to keep us safe. And may God continue to bless the United States of America.