Sept. 11 victims' loved ones read the names of those killed 12 years ago in a ceremony at ground zero Wednesday that was filled with the familiar traditions of moments of silence, tolling bells, serene music and personal messages to the lost.
"Even though it's been 12 years I will never forget all the amazing times we had together -- you were more than just my daddy, you were my best friend," Christina Aceto, who lost her father, Richard Aceto, said after reading his name.
"There's nothing I wouldn't give to have one more hug, one more kiss," said another reader.
"Has it really been 12 years? Or 12 days? Sometimes it feels the same," said Michael Fox, speaking aloud to his brother, Jeffrey, who perished in the south tower. "Sometimes I reach for the phone so I can call you, and we can talk about our kids like we used to do every day."
At the ceremony on the 2-year-old memorial's plaza, relatives recited the names of the nearly 3,000 people who died at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and near Shanksville, Pa., as well as the 1993 trade center bombing victims' names.
Bells tolled to mark the planes hitting the towers and the moments when the skyscrapers fell. "Tribute in Light" searchlights, turned on at sunset, illuminated the skies where the twin towers once stood.
"No matter how many years pass, this time comes around each year — and it's always the same," said Karen Hinson of Seaford, N.Y., who lost her 34-year-old brother, Michael Wittenstein, a Cantor Fitzgerald employee.
"My brother was never found, so this is where he is for us," she said as she arrived for the ceremony with her family early Wednesday.
As the ceremony went on, with police barricades blocking access to the site, life around the World Trade Center looked like any other morning, with workers rushing to their jobs and construction cranes looming over the area.
In Washington, President Barack Obama, joined by first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and wife Jill Biden, and members of the White House staff, walked out to the South Lawn at 8:46 a.m. — the moment the first plane struck the south tower in New York.
"It is an honor to be with you here again to remember the tragedy of 12 Septembers ago, to honor the greatness of all who responded and to stand with those who still grieve and to provide them some measure of comfort once more," Obama said. "Together we pause and we give humble thanks as families and as a nation."
At the site in lower Manhattan, friends and families silently held up photos of the deceased. Others wept.
Carol Eckna recalled the contagious laugh of her son, Paul Robert Eckna, who was killed in the north tower.
"Just yesterday, you were 28," she said. "Today, you are 40. You are forever young. Dad and I are proud to be your parents."
Continuing a decision made last year, no politicians were speaking at ground zero, including Mayor Bloomberg, who is marking his final 9/11 anniversary in office.
Memorial organizers expect to take primary responsibility for the ceremony next year and say they plan to continue concentrating the event on victims' loved ones, even as the forthcoming museum creates a new, broader framework for remembering 9/11.
"As things evolve in the future, the focus on the remembrance is going to stay sacrosanct," memorial President Joe Daniels said.
Hinson said she would like the annual ceremony to be "more low-key, more private" as the years go by.
Around the world, thousands of volunteers have pledged to do good deeds, honoring an anniversary that was designated a National Day of Service and Remembrance in 2009.