Poignant ceremony marks solemn day of remembrance

As the somber ceremony marking the seventh anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, wound to a close at Ground Zero Thursday in lower Manhattan, Mayor Michael Bloomberg thanked relatives and student speakers for allowing the world to imagine "the possibility of a united human family."

Then, in a poignant moment, trumpeters played "Taps" as a police officer on the roof of a nearby building faced Ground Zero and held a salute.

It was Bloomberg who, in a somber but strong voice just after the ceremony's 8:40 a.m. start, told the thousands gathered in Zuccotti Park at the southeast corner of Ground Zero: "We return this morning as New Yorkers, as Americans and as global citizens -- remembering the innocent people from 95 nations who lost their lives together that day."

Then, after the first of four observed moments of silence, the mayor added: "We come each year to stand here alongside those who loved and lost the most."

The ceremony at the site where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were felled by terrorists wielding hijacked jetliners as weapons was one of hundreds taking place around the United States.

President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush attended a gathering in Washington, D.C., while presidential candidate Sen. John McCain was present for a memorial in Shanksville, Pa., Thursday.

It was there that United Flight 93 crashed to earth on Sept. 11, 2001, killing all 40 on board -- that, after passengers overwhelmed the terrorists who had hijacked the plane.

Both McCain and Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama were scheduled to make what has been called a "non-political" visit Thursday afternoon to Ground Zero.

The morning ceremony at the site, which ended shortly after noon, featured loved ones and students representing each nation of a victim. They took turns reading the names of each of the 2,751 World Trade Center victims to a backdrop of soft, stirring string music.

Four moments of silence -- one at 8:46 a.m., one at 9:03 a.m., one at 9:59 a.m. and the last one at 10:29 a.m. -- marked the moments the north and south towers were first struck by two of the hijacked jetliners and the time each of the buildings collapsed that day.

Each was preceded by the single strike of a silver bell.

As the fourth moment of silence unfolded, seven parachutists trailing American flags circled in the cloud-filled skies above Ground Zero.

It was a simple, but dramatic and moving moment.

Friends, relatives and people who simply felt the need to honor those lost on Sept. 11 began to arrive for the ceremony before 7 a.m.

An American flag waved from a cable. A large police presence was already visible around the site more than three hours before the start of the ceremony.

Dozens of uniformed and plainclothes officers gathered at corners on Broadway, some accompanied by canine units.

Some family members sat quietly on marble benches in Zuccotti Park. Several held wreaths and laminated or framed portrait photos.

A handful of fire officials in their dress blue uniforms mixed in the crowd.

Among those headed to Ground Zero were two friends from Seattle who said they felt compelled to attend the ceremony. The terrorist attacks happened, Julianne Brendon said, on her 18th birthday.

Now, on her 25th birthday, Brendon said: "It's very emotional. This event has completely changed my life."

Standing with her, friend Kaitlyn Bouma, 23, said her birthday was Wednesday -- and she also felt the need to attend the ceremonies.

"It's important to embrace this day," Bouma said. "Not only has it changed my life, but that of the country."

Following the second moment of silence, Gov. David Paterson, quoting an French-Algerian writer, said: "So many things are susceptible of being loved that surely no discouragement could be final."

Later, former New York Gov. George Pataki addressed the crowd: "May God bless those who defend our freedom," he said, "and all those we lost on September 11th." Whitestone resident Joe Wesseo, 38, was among the crowd at Ground Zero. He said he has returned to the site each year since the terrorist attacks that nearly made him a casualty, as well. He was saved by luck.

An office worker in the towers, Wesseo was making a doughnut run to a Krispy Kreme shop when the first plane hit.

"Every year I come on this day to reflect and to see if there's been any progress" in rebuilding the site, Wesseo said. "It's sad that not more has been done, but we won't concentrate on that [today] -- we'll try to remember the victims."

As the nearby park filled, Fran Bulaga, 63, from Wanaque, N.J., stood at the back of the crowd with her husband, John. They wore matching T-shirts memorializing their son, John Jr. He was 35 and a network engineer at Cantor Fitzgerald on Sept 11. The family got only a small part of his remains.

"For us," Fran Bulaga said, "this is the only cemetery we can go to."

In a disarming moment, viewers watching the 9/11 memorial service coverage on local television stations here on Long Island saw the coverage interrupted at about 11 a.m. -- for an untimely test of the "Emergency Alert System."

Such messages are used by media outlets -- specifically television and radio stations -- to warn viewers to potentially catastrophic events like the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The pre-programmed message, in white letters on green background, informed viewers: "Emergency Alert System, Required Monthly Test."

It was a stark reminder of the tragic, horrific events on that morning seven years ago.

Jean-Louis Kayitenkore
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