In New York, loved ones milled around the memorial site, making rubbings of names, putting flowers by the names of victims and weeping, arm-in-arm. Former Gov. George Pataki, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and others were in attendance. Continuing a decision made last year, no politicians will speak, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was watching the ceremony for his final time in office.
Over his years as mayor and chairman of the National Sept. 11 Memorial & Museum, Bloomberg has sometimes tangled with victims' relatives, religious leaders and other elected officials over an event steeped in symbolism and emotion. But his administration has largely succeeded at its goal of keeping the commemoration centered on the attacks' victims and their families and relatively free of political image-making.
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.
Douglas Hamatie, whose 31-year-old cousin Robert Horohoe worked for Cantor Fitzgerald and died on 9/11, said the day should become a national holiday.
"The kids today, they know when the next iPhone's coming out, and they know when the next Justin Bieber concert is, but they don't know enough about 9/11. So let's change that, please," he said, to applause from the crowd.
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.
By next year's anniversary, the museum is expected to be open beneath the memorial plaza. While the memorial honors those killed, the museum is intended to present a broader picture of 9/11, including the experiences of survivors and first responders.
"As things evolve in the future, the focus on the remembrance is going to stay sacrosanct," memorial President Joe Daniels said.
The organizers expect they "will always keep the focus on the families on the anniversary," Daniels said. That focus was clear as relatives gathered on the tree-laden plaza, where a smaller crowd was gathering Wednesday — only friends and family of the victims were allowed.
Denise Matuza, who lost her husband on Sept. 11, said people ask her why she still comes to the service with her three sons.
"It doesn't make us feel good to stay home," she said. Her husband called after the towers were struck. "He said a plane hit the building, they were finding their way out, he'd be home in a little while. I just waited and waited," she said.
"A few days later I found an email he had sent that they couldn't get out."