NEW YORK — Ten years on, Americans will come together Sunday where the World Trade Center soared, where the Pentagon stands as a fortress once breached, where United Airlines Flight 93 knifed into the earth.
They will gather to pray in cathedrals in our greatest cities and to lay roses before fire stations in our smallest towns, to remember in countless ways the anniversary of the most devastating terrorist attacks since the nation's founding, and in the process mark the milestone as history itself.
As in earlier observances, bells will toll again to mourn the loss of those killed in the attacks. Ceremonies also will consecrate new memorials in lower Manhattan, rural Pennsylvania and elsewhere, concrete symbols of the resolve to remember and rebuild.
But much of the weight of this year's ceremonies lies in what will largely go unspoken — the anniversary's role in prompting Americans to consider how the attacks changed them and the larger world and the continuing struggle to understand 9/11's place in the lore of the nation.
"A lot's going on in the background," said Ken Foote, author of "Shadowed Ground: America's Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy," examining the role that veneration of sites of death and disaster plays in modern life. "These anniversaries are particularly critical in figuring out what story to tell, in figuring out what this all means. It forces people to figure out what happened to us."
First, Saturday's dedication of the beginning Flight 93 National Memorial at a former strip mine near the town of Shanksville, in western Pennsylvania.
Former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden joined families of the 40 passengers and crew killed when their revolt against hijackers of the United Airlines jet ended with its crash, stood under gray skies in a field soggy from rain. Clinton likened the actions of those aboard Flight 93 to the defenders of the Alamo in Texas or the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae some 2,500 years ago, with a telling difference: "They were soldiers. They knew what they had to do."
The Pennsylvania memorial park is years from completion. But the dedication and a service to mark the 10th anniversary of the attacks are critical milestones, said Sally Ware, one of the volunteer "ambassadors" who has worked as a guide at the site since the disaster.
Ware, whose home about two miles away from the site was rocked by the jet's explosion on impact, recalls how hundreds of people flocked to the crash site in the days afterward to leave their own mementos and memorials. She began volunteering after finding one along the side of the road — a red rose placed atop a flight attendant's uniform.
"It really bothered me. I thought someone has to take care of this," says Ware, a homemaker whose own daughter is a flight attendant. Now, a decade later, she acknowledges the memorial might do little to ease the grief of the families of those who died in the crash. But the weekend's ceremonies recall a story with far broader reach.
The ceremonies honor those who "fought the first battle against terrorism — and they won," Ware said. "It's something I don't want to miss. It's become a part of my life."
On Sunday, the nation's focus turns to ceremonies at the Pentagon, just outside Washington, D.C., and in lower Manhattan for the dedication of the national Sept. 11 memorial. President Barack Obama planned to attend ceremonies at the sites of all three attacks and was scheduled to speak Sunday evening at a service at the Kennedy Center.
The New York ceremony begins at 8:30 a.m., with a moment of silence 16 minutes later — coinciding with the exact time a decade ago when the first tower of the trade center was struck by a hijacked jet. And then, one by one, the reading of the names of the 2,977 killed on Sept. 11 — those who perished in New York, as well as those who died at the Pentagon and in rural Pennsylvania.
They include the names of 37 of Lt. Patrick Lim's fellow officers from the police department of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Lim, assigned to patrol the trade center with an explosives detection dog, rushed in to the north tower after it was hit to help evacuate workers. He and a few others survived despite still being inside a fifth-floor stairwell when the building fell.
In the years since, Lim said he has wrestled with survivor's guilt when he realized the last of those he'd urged ahead of him were crushed when the tower collapsed. He took shelter in selective memory and visualized the ground covered with women's shoes amid the destruction.
"That's how I got through that because what was attached to the shoes was a lot worse," Lim said.
The 10th anniversary has forced Lim to revisit an experience he's worried too many people have pushed from their minds. But the approach of Sunday's ceremonies has convinced him of the value of revisiting Sept. 11, both for himself and others.
When it happened, talking about the events of that day "wasn't easy for me. This was very difficult. But it became ... a catharsis," he says. "What I want is for people to remember what happened."
And so arrives a weekend dedicated to remembrance, with hundreds of ceremonies across the country and around the globe — from a memorial Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York to a ceremony featuring nine-stories-tall replicas of the twin towers on a plaza in Paris.
But some of the most powerful ceremonies will likely be the smallest and most personal.
In Newtown, Conn., retired American Stock Exchange floor broker Howard Lasher planned a ceremony Sunday morning under the canopy of six maple trees standing alongside his gravel driveway; their trunks are painted to resemble an American flag. Lasher commissioned the painting in the weeks just after Sept. 11 as a tribute to nine Amex colleagues and the son of another who died inside the trade center.
"I wanted something that would reach out to people, that people would not forget," Lasher says of the memorial, which has since become a local landmark. "When people drive by here, I want them to envision what this country has been, for all its greatness, and that we should not forget the people who were lost that day and in all the wars because they died defending what it represents."
And in Brown City, Mich. — with a population of about 1,300 and no direct connection to the attacks — firefighters will lay 343 roses on a 15,000-pound steel beam salvaged from the World Trade Center, in honor of the New York City brethren who perished in the disaster.
Since venturing to New York in June to claim the beam and bring it home, the Michigan firefighters have finished building a brick plaza, lighted around the clock and crowned by three flagpoles. Already, this has become a local shrine, Chief Jim Groat says.
A few days ago, a couple from St. Joseph, Mich., who happened to be driving through, pulled into the fire station lot when they spotted a sign for the memorial. Groat came out to speak with them, and the woman explained that she was a flight attendant for American Airlines who'd been aboard a plane the morning of the attacks.
Then she turned to face the steel beam from the trade center.
"She just stood there and cried. She said she was just honored that somebody still cares," Groat recalled. The chief observed silently before offering an invitation.
"Will I see you here on Sept. 11?" he asked.
"I'll be here," she answered.