As in past years, thousands gathered at the World Trade Center site in New York, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa., to read the names of nearly 3,000 victims killed in the worst terror attack in U.S. history.
But many felt that last year's 10th anniversary was an emotional turning point for public mourning of the attacks. For the first time, elected officials weren't speaking at the ceremony, which often allowed them a solemn turn in the spotlight, but raised questions about the public and private Sept. 11. Fewer families attended the ceremonies this year, and some cities canceled their remembrances altogether.
"I feel much more relaxed" this year, said Jane Pollicino, who came to ground zero Tuesday morning to mourn her husband, who was killed at the trade center. "After the ninth anniversary, that next day, you started building up to the 10th year. This feels a lot different, in that regard. It's another anniversary that we can commemorate in a calmer way, without that 10-year pressure."
As bagpipes played at the year-old Sept. 11 memorial in New York, family clutching balloons, flowers and photos of their loved ones bowed their heads in silence at 8:46 a.m., the moment that 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.
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama observed the moment in a ceremony on the White House's south lawn, and then laid a white floral wreath at the Pentagon, above a concrete slab that said "Sept. 11, 2001 - 937 am." He later recalled the horror of the attacks, declaring, "Our country is safer and our people are resilient."
Victims' families in New York tearfully read the names of the attack victims, often looking up to the sky to talk to their lost loved ones."Rick, can you hear your name as the roll is called again? On this sacred ground where your dust settled?" said Richard Blood, whose son, Richard Middleton Blood, Jr., died in the trade center's south tower. "If only those who hear your name could know what a loving son and beautiful person you grew to be. I love you, son, and miss you terribly."
Thousands had attended the ceremony in New York in previous years, including last year's milestone 10th anniversary. 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 Pennsylvania.
Commuters rushed out of the subway and fewer police barricades were in place than in past years in the lower Manhattan neighborhood surrounding ground zero. More than 4 million people in the past year have visited the memorial, which became more of a public space than a closed-off construction site.
Families had a mixed reaction to the changing ceremony, which kept politicians away from the microphone in New York for the first time. Charles G. Wolf, whose wife, Katherine, was killed at the trade center, said: "We've gone past that deep, collective public grief." But Pollicino said it's important that politicians still attend the ceremony.
"There's something missing if they're not here at all," she said. "Now, all of a sudden, it's 'for the families.' This happened to our country - it didn't happen only to me."
And Joe Torres, who put in 16-hour days in ground zero's "pit" cleaning up tons of debris in the days after the attacks said another year has changed nothing for him.
"The 11th year, for me, it's the same as if it happened yesterday," said Torres, whose sister-in-law was killed in the attacks. "It could be 50 years from now, and to me, it'll be just as important as year one, or year five or year ten."
Like 2001, this Sept. 11 was on a Tuesday, for the second time since the attacks. The early fall weather was much like the morning on 2001.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the governors of New York and new Jersey and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani all attended New York's ceremony. Biden spoke to hundreds at the Flight 93 Memorial in Pennsylvania, saying the ceremonies were a reminder that the country hasn't forgotten them.
The Obamas planned later to visit wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The U.S. terror attacks were followed by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the U.S. military death toll years ago surpassed the 9/11 victim count. At least 1,987 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan and 4,475 in Iraq, according to the Pentagon.
Allied military forces marked the anniversary at a short ceremony at NATO's headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan with a tribute to more than 3,000 foreign troops killed in the decade-long war.
"Eleven years on from that day there should be no doubt that our dedication to this commitment, that commitment that was seared into our souls that day so long ago, remains strong and unshaken," said Marine Gen. John Allen, the top commander of U.S. and coalition troops.
There was little politics on an election-year anniversary, with Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney pulling negative ads and avoiding campaign rallies. Romney shook hands with firefighters in Chicago and was addressing National Guard members in Nevada. Most ceremonies focused on grief and memory, but there was still a touch of politics from the podium.
"We would like to thank President Obama and (Navy) Seal Team 6 for what they did for this country," said Angella Whyte, referring to the U.S.-led raid that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden last year.
Other ceremonies were held across the country - from New York's Long Island, where hundreds wrote messages to their loved ones on a memorial, to Boston, where more than 200 people with ties to Massachusetts were remembered. But some cities scaled back - Middletown, N.J., which lost 37 residents, held a small, silent ceremony instead of previous events with speeches and music. The New York City suburb of Glen Rock, N.J., where 11 people were killed, did not hold a memorial this year for the first time.
"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."
The memorial foundation announced this summer that politicians wouldn't be included this year, to separate politics from the ceremony. But others said keeping elected officials off the rostrum smacked of ... politics. And several said they were unwilling to let go.
"Coming here, it's like ripping off a Band-Aid," said Yasmin Leon, whose sister was killed at the trade center. "You rip it off and the wound is opened again. But you keep coming back anyway."
And at ground zero, family members reading their loved ones' names said the passage of time did not change their grief.
"Mark, they say time heals all wounds. It's not true, Mark," said Joanne Hindy, whose nephew died in the north tower. "There's a void in all our lives because this that will never ever be filled or healed."
A look at some commemorations outside New York and around the world on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks:
- NORFOLK, Va. - Sailors and Marines aboard a warship forged with 7.5 tons of steel salvaged from the World Trade Center held a remembrance ceremony and pledged to do all in their power to prevent another tragedy from happening. "We often tell people, it's not just about that one day. The spirit here is really about what happened the next day and the next day and every day since," Capt. John Kreitz, the USS New York's commanding officer, said in a telephone interview after the shipboard ceremony. "That spirit pervades this ship." The New York's home port is Norfolk, Va., but it is operating in the Navy's 5th Fleet area of responsibility, which includes the Arabian Sea, Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean.
- JERUSALEM - At Israel's Sept. 11 memorial - a 30-foot bronze sculpture of a waving American flag that morphs into a memorial flame - the father of one victim endorsed the crackdown on terrorism. Dov Shefi, the father of Hagay Shefi, who was attending a conference that day in the twin towers, said, "Let us hope that the free world will continue to fight against leaders of terrorist organizations and their supporters; let all the souls of the thousands of victims whose names are marked on this great living memorial in Jerusalem be remembered from here to eternity."
- WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama visited service members' graves at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington. The Obamas quietly walked between rows of graves at Section 60, which contains the remains of the most recent war dead. Pausing at several graves, Obama placed presidential "challenge" coins at the base of the headstones. The first headstone listed the names of 10 victims of an Oct. 26, 2009, helicopter crash in Afghanistan. Earlier, the Obamas placed a wreath at the Pentagon and observed a moment of silence on the White House South Lawn.
- SHANKSVILLE, Pa. - Scores of people began arriving shortly after dawn at the site where a United Airlines jet crashed in southwestern Pennsylvania after the crew and passengers revolted against their hijackers. "Every 9/11 I come out to one of the sites," said Robert Hamel of El Segundo, Calif. Hamel spent the 10th anniversary at the ground zero ceremony in New York City last year, and plans to visit the Pentagon for next year's anniversary. Hamel says he feels a need to be connected to the tragic events of the day.
- GLEN ROCK, N.J. - For some communities in the New York City region, 2012 was the first year without an official Sept. 11 memorial observance. The northern New Jersey community of Glen Rock held no organized public commemoration. The Glen Rock Assistance Council and Endowment, a community group set up to help families of the town's 11 victims, decided after months of community meetings that it was time to end the public events and let people remember on their own. "It was a difficult decision," said Brad Jordan, the group's chairman. "We felt this year it was more appropriate for a more personal and private observance."
- MONTCLAIR, N.J.- The mayor of Montclair decided to shift from a ceremony commemorating the terrorist attacks to urging residents to commit "random acts of kindness." ''It was a matter of moving in another direction, really, in terms of looking at marking the day in a way that would be meaningful and significant to everyone in terms of a service-oriented commemoration," spokeswoman Katya Wowk said.
- HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. - Family members and friends of Sept. 11 victims gathered for an oceanfront ceremony at Point Lookout Beach in Hempstead. They wrote messages and names of victims on a panorama of the New York City skyline. Some also included the names of servicemen and women serving overseas.
- BOSTON - A man who raced into a burning apartment building to alert residents was honored as part of observances in Massachusetts. Paul Antonino, of Wakefield, was presented with the annual Madeline Amy Sweeney Award for Civilian Bravery. The award was created to honor Sweeney, a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 11, the first of two jetliners that were hijacked from Boston's Logan Airport and flown into the World Trade Center. Also in Boston, the names of the more than 200 people with direct ties to Massachusetts who died were read by Gov. Deval Patrick, Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray and family members. A wreath was placed at the state's 9/11 memorial in the Boston Public Garden.
Associated Press writers Verena Dobnik, Meghan Barr and Alex Katz in New York, Wayne Parry in Atlantic City, N.J., Steven R. Hurst in Washington, Joe Mandak in Shanksville, Pa., and Amir Shah in Afghanistan contributed to this report.