NEW YORK — Mourners gathered at a reborn World Trade Center site Sunday to honor loved ones lost to terror and to witness the transformation of a place that for a decade spoke of horror and destruction but now memorializes the nearly 3,000 killed on 9/11.
The unveiling of an 8-acre memorial plaza featuring massive pools and dark bronze parapets bearing the names of victims added poignancy to the familiar anniversary rituals: the moments of silence, the tear-filled recitation of names and a silver bell’s toll echoing the tragic sequence of events 10 years ago Sunday.
Led by President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush, thousands of family members filtered onto the 9/11 Memorial Plaza during the morning ceremony to behold for the first time what many consider a gravestone set on sacred ground: a ribbon of names etched in bronze.
They ran their hands across names. They laid roses, photos and letters along the nameplates. Children and adults laid paper on the letters and rubbed crayons to capture shaded imprints.
One sobbing woman pressed her cheek against her loved one’s name. Others gazed silently across the pools, each 30 feet deep and one acre in area.
“It’s the closest I’ll ever get to her again,” Mary Dwyer of Brooklyn said as she stood above the name of her sister, Lucy Fishman, who died in the south tower.
Outside the fenced-off plaza — which opens to the public Monday — family members took turns reading the names of those who died, a staccato of sorrow that lasted more than four hours. Some spoke directly to their loved ones in emotional tributes.
And amid tight security, several past and present elected officials — including Obama, Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani — read passages about loss, hope and courage.
“It’s been 10 years since a perfect blue sky morning turned into the blackest of nights,” New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, opening the ceremony. “Although we can never un-see what happened here, we can also see that children who lost their parents have grown into young adults, grandchildren have been born and good works and public service have taken root to honor those we loved and lost.”
Moments later, at 8:46 a.m., the ceremony paused for the first of six times, this one marking when American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the north tower. Thousands bowed their heads. The only sound was the hush of cascading water on the plaza.
Obama, Bush and their wives stood shoulder to shoulder at one edge of the stage for the first half hour of the ceremony. It was the first time the 43rd and 44th presidents — who started and carried out the successful hunt for Osama bin Laden — had been at the World Trade Center site together. Former first lady Laura Bush appeared to dab her eyes with a tissue and her husband clasped her hand tightly as the victims’ names were read.
Obama read an excerpt from the Bible and Bush quoted a letter from Abraham Lincoln to Lydia Bixby, a widow who lost five sons in the Civil War.
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” Obama said, quoting Psalm 46. Family members took pictures of the presidents, and one section of family members boisterously applauded Bush as he left the lectern.
Family members began filing into the plaza after the second moment of silence, which recalled the crash of United Airlines Flight 175 into the south tower.
Among those who entered were about 25 family members of Christopher Wodenshek, a Cantor Fitzgerald employee and father of five from Ridgewood, N.J. The group wore matching T-shirts with Wodenshek’s picture.
His nephew, Paul Remenschneider, said the memorial brought a mix of emotions: happiness to be united with other families and to see a completed tribute, but grief at the realization that his uncle is gone.
“You walk over to the name and it hits you,” he said. “Time will heal some wounds, but not this. This is too deep.”
The Simon family came to mourn two relatives: Arthur Simon and his son, Kenneth Simon, who lived in Secaucus, N.J. They worked for separate companies in the north tower: Arthur on the 93rd floor, Kenneth on the 104th.
“I thought the memorial was beautiful and respectful,” Susan Simon, who lost her husband and son, said after exiting the plaza. “We’re still overwhelmed with emotion.”
Many family members said they were surprised by the vastness of the fountains and of the emotional response they evoked.
Elizabeth Candela of Glen Ridge, N.J., who lost her husband, John Candela, said she supported rebuilding the Twin Towers after the attacks. She said Sunday that she instead felt relieved that the memorial was built when she saw her husband’s name next to those of two co-workers.
“It was breathtaking,” Candela said of the memorial. “Beautiful.”
“When I saw his name next to theirs, it felt like home,” she said.
Amanda Gregory, 29, Sara Gregory, 28, and James Gregory, 24, came to the memorial pool at the north tower to touch the name of their father, Donald H. Gregory, who died on the 104th floor of the north tower while working at Cantor Fitzgerald. The Ramsey, N.J., resident was 62 years old and had been on sick leave until the day before 9/11. He had had triple bypass surgery and returned to work earlier than he originally planned, Sara said.
Touching the name and sobbing, Amanda said: “For me it’s solidifying a feeling of loss. It’s beautiful, but I want my dad here. I don’t want his name on a memorial.”
She placed flowers on the ground next to the memorial pool.
“He promised he was going to take care of himself so he could walk me down the aisle one day,” she said.
Sara said she usually stays home on 9/11 anniversaries, watching TV and looking at pictures. She said it was very significant to have the siblings together Sunday because they have endured so much grief and were distant from one another for a long time. They all went through post traumatic stress disorder and therapy, she said.
“For a while it might have separated us a little bit. We didn’t talk about it for a long time. For us being here together is a very big deal,” she said, with tears in her eyes.
Sara said she missed her father most at her art school graduation.
“It was very hard for me to finish college,” she said. “I finally made it.”
Her senior thesis topic was on coming to terms with 9/11.