NEW YORK – There were still the tearful messages to loved ones, clutches of photos and flowers, and moments of silence. But 11 years after Sept. 11, Americans appeared to enter a new, scaled-back chapter of collective mourning for the worst terror attack in U.S history.
Crowds gathered, as always, at the World Trade Center site in New York, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania memorial Tuesday to mourn the nearly 3,000 victims of the 2001 terror attacks, reciting their names and remembering with music, tolling bells and prayer. But they came in fewer numbers, ceremonies were less elaborate and some cities canceled their remembrances altogether. A year after the milestone 10th anniversary, some said the memorials may have reached an emotional turning point.
“It’s human nature, so people move on,” said Wanda Ortiz, of New York City, whose husband, Emilio Ortiz, was killed in the trade center’s north tower, leaving behind her and their 5-month-old twin daughters. “My concern now is … how I keep the memory of my husband alive.”
It was also a year when politicians largely took a back seat to grieving families; no elected officials spoke at all at New York’s 3 1/2-hour ceremony. President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney pulled negative campaign ads and avoided rallies, with the president laying a wreath at the Pentagon ceremony and visiting wounded soldiers at a Maryland hospital. And beyond the victims of the 2001 attacks, attention was paid to the wars that followed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In Middletown, N.J., a bedroom community that lost 37 residents in the attacks, town officials laid a wreath at the entrance to the park in a small, silent ceremony. Last year, 3,700 people attended a remembrance with speeches, music and names read.
“This year,” said Deputy Mayor Stephen Massell, “I think less is more.”
Some worried that moving on would mean Sept. 11 will fade from memory.
“It’s been 11 years already,” said Michael Reneo, whose sister-in-law, Daniela Notaro, was killed at the trade center. “And unfortunately for some, the reality of this day seems to be fading as the years go by. … I hope we never lose focus on what really happened here.”
Thousands had attended the ceremony in New York in previous years, including last year’s milestone 10th anniversary. In New York, a crowd of fewer than 200 swelled to about 1,000 by late Tuesday morning, as family members laid roses and made paper rubbings of their loved ones’ names etched onto the Sept. 11 memorial. A few hundred attended ceremonies at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pa., fewer than in years past.
As bagpipes played at the year-old Sept. 11 memorial in New York, families holding balloons, flowers and photos of their loved ones bowed their heads in silence at 8:46 a.m., the moment the first hijacked jetliner crashed into the trade center’s north tower. Bells tolled to mark the moments that planes crashed into the second tower, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field, and the moments that each tower collapsed.
The president and first lady Michelle Obama laid a white floral wreath at the Pentagon above a concrete slab that reads: “Sept. 11, 2001 – 937 am.” Obama later recalled the horror of the attacks, declaring, “Our country is safer and our people are resilient.”
Vice President Joe Biden remembered the 40 victims of the plane that crashed in a field south of Pittsburgh, saying he understood 11 years haven’t diminished memories.
“Today is just as monumental a day for all of you, for each of your families, as any Sept. 11 has ever been,” he said.
Like 2001, this Sept. 11 was on a Tuesday, for the second time since the attacks. The cloudless blue sky and brisk, early fall weather recalled the morning of 2001.
At sunset, the Manhattan skyline was illuminated by twin towers of light, the annual Tribute in Light installation, which debuted six months after the attacks and has become a Sept. 11 tradition.
Other ceremonies were held across the country – from Long Island, where hundreds of people wrote messages to their loved ones on a memorial, to Boston, where more than 200 people with ties to Massachusetts were remembered. Two of the hijacked airliners took off from Boston’s Logan Airport.
But other cities changed the way they remembered. The New York City suburb of Glen Rock, N.J., where 11 victims lived, did not hold an organized memorial for the first time. Past commemorations often ran for several hours, with family laying roses in front of a granite memorial built with remnants of the twin towers’ steel.
“It was appropriate for this year – not that the losses will ever be forgotten,” said Brad Jordan, chairman of a Glen Rock community group that helps victims’ families. “But we felt it was right to shift the balance a bit from the observance of loss to a commemoration of how the community came together to heal.”