The Sept. 11 ceremonies at Ground Zero began with a somber rendition of the national anthem.
Thousands of mourners gathered at the World Trade Center site on this rainy and windswept morning to honor and remember the 2,752 people who died in the destruction of the Twin Towers eight years ago today.
Memorials in New York, at the Pentagon and at the crash site of United Airlines Flight 93 in Pennsylvania all took place under gray skies. Families used rain jackets and ponchos to fend off the rain and strong wind as bells tolled at nearby Trinity Church.
Mourners observed a moment of silence -- the first of four -- around 8:46 a.m., the time the first hijacked plane hit the World Trade Center. Then the names of victims began to be read. As has become tradition, relatives who read names called out greetings and messages of love to those lost on 9/11.
"We miss you; life will never be the same without you. This is not the rain," said Vladimir Boyarsky, whose son, Gennady Boyarsky, was killed. "This is the tears."
Vice President Joe Biden, Gov. David Paterson, Mayor Michael Bloomberg all paid their respects at the annual ritual at ground zero. The vice president laid flowers at a reflecting pool, read a poem and reflected on his own life's tragedy, telling the several hundred victims' relatives gathered that "there's a special fraternity for those of us who've lost spouses and children." Biden's daughter and first wife died in a 1972 automobile accident.
The gloomy weather -- a stark contrast to that fateful sunny morning eight years ago -- cast a pall over the event as singer Carly Simon, Ben Taylor and Sally Taylor sang "Let the River Run" from beneath a tarp. The rain, however, was inconsequential to those dealing with the pain of loss.
"It doesn't matter what kind of weather there is. I would be here either way. It's a way to come together and find a common place," said Elaine Dejesus of Clifton, N.J. She carried a framed photo of Nereida Dejesus, who was her sister and best friend.
Dejesus, wiping tears off her cheeks, said the anniversaries don't get any easier.
"For me, it's just the same as it was the first day," she said. "You start preparing mentally, months in advance. There's a lot of praying."
Nora Scullin, whose father worked at Marsh and McLennan, held back tears as she spoke. "Dad, you always put yourself last. And that is why you took the early train that day. But we know you wouldn't have it any other way", she said.
There was applause only during two points in the ceremony-- after Carly Simon, Ben Taylor and Sally Taylor performed, and after the brief remarks by former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who led the city during some of its darkest hours.
White-blue beams shone skyward from the now-empty site last night. Rebuilding has been delayed over planning and financing squabbles and the economic downturn. But in one sign of progress, relatives and friends of victims visited a partially built, street-level Sept. 11 memorial plaza that had not been there a year ago. The twin, waterfall-filled pools surrounded by victims' names are expected to be built by the attacks' 10th anniversary in 2011.
The anniversary also marks the first year that 9/11 will be recognized as a National Day of Service and Remembrance, an act signed into legislation by President Obama in April. The National Day of Service and Remembrance, which is sponsored by the non-profit MyGoodDeed, gives people a chance to help out with a variety of good deeds and service projects around the city.
The combination of mourning and national giving was troubling to some who feared the volunteerism would overshadow a somber day to remember the four hijacked jetliners that crashed into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field, killing nearly 3,000 people, most of them in New York.
"From this day forward, we will safeguard the memories of those who died by rekindling the spirit of service that lit our city with hope and helped keep us strong," Mayor Bloomberg said at the ceremony.
But some survivors of 9/11 victims expressed concerns that the focus on the victims could be lost.
"When I first heard about it, I was concerned,'' said Debra Burlingame, whose brother was the pilot of the American Airlines jet that crashed into the Pentagon. "I fear, I greatly fear, at some point we'll transition to turning it into Earth Day where we go and plant trees and the remembrance part will become smaller and smaller and smaller.''
But the president made the case for a day of service in an Op-Ed in the Daily News.
"On this day, and every day, it is incumbent on each of us to uphold those ideals that our enemies were -- and are -- so eager to destroy," Obama wrote. "To serve others and give back to our communities. To respect our differences and to value what we share. To remember that even when we disagree, and disagree strongly, that we are all Americans - that we are all striving to leave for our children a safer and more perfect union. On this Sept. 11, as we reflect on this painful tragedy, let us also recommit ourselves to this historic task."
Adding tension to an already emotionally charged day, the Coast Guard conducted a training exercise in the Potomac River near the Pentagon, with vessels circling in the water near a bridge where Obama's motorcade had passed.
In the confusion, departures from Reagan National Airport were halted for 22 minutes. They resumed at 10:30 a.m., Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Diane Spitaliere said. Federal agents also scrambled to the river, said a law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the Incident.
George W. Bush, whose presidency was defined in part by that day, had no public appearances planned. A spokesman said he would be working in his office. In a statement, he said he and his wife, Laura, were thinking of the victims and their families.
He also honored members of the armed forces and law enforcement. "Their courage, service, and sacrifice is a fitting tribute to all those who gave their lives on Sept. 11, 2001. On this day, let us renew our determination to prevent evil from returning to our shores."
The ceremonies were opened by the Brooklyn Youth Choir singing the "Star-Spangled Banner," and brought to an end by the youths giving a chilling rendition of the Mariah Carey song "Hero."
Tim Minton contributed to this report.