NEW YORK — Emotionally charged ceremonies at the World Trade Center site, the Pentagon in Virginia and a rural field in western Pennsylvania marked the 15th anniversary Sunday of the most deadly terror attack in U.S. history.
Bells tolled across much of the nation at 8:46 a.m. ET, the moment the first plane struck the World Trade Center's North Tower. Thousands gathered here to listen as family members, after a moment of silence, began the annual reading of the 2,977 names of those who died that day, as well as the six people killed in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were at the ceremony, but this event wasn't about them. Lionel Keaton traveled by bus from North Carolina with 50 relatives to remember his niece Tamitha Freeman, 35, who died in the South Tower.
"We just decided as a family since it was the 15th anniversary that we would all get together and make a bus trip to New York to celebrate her life," Keaton said.
At the Pentagon, President Obama participated in a wreath ceremony and paid tribute to the victims.
"No deed we do can ever truly erase the pain of their absence," Obama said. "Your steadfast love and faithfulness has been an inspiration to me and our entire country."
Defense Secretary Ash Carter vowed to hunt down all who attack Americans.
“Wherever they are, they will surely, no matter how long it takes, come to feel the righteous fist of American might,” Carter said.
In Pennsylvania, Gordon Felt lost a brother on United Airlines Flight 93, which flew out of Newark bound for San Francisco. The 9/11 Commission determined the hijackers were heading for a target in Washington, D.C., when the plane went down. "Patriotism and heroism" were on display that day, Felt said.
"I hope we don't move beyond. We can't leave the events of Sept. 11 behind," Felt said. "It will always be bittersweet for me."
Tom Rooney, president of Rooney Sports, and some of the Pittsburgh Steelers comforted Flight 93 families 15 years ago and raised money for the memorial.
"The first shot in the war on terrorism was fired by those who wrestled the control of the plane and brought it down and saved the Capitol," Rooney said. "We feel almost like war veterans coming back to a war memorial."
In New York, the reading of the names was paused at 9:03 a.m. ET to recall the moment a second plane hit the South Tower. Another pause, at 9:59 a.m., marked the moment the South Tower fell, spewing steel and dust across lower Manhattan. The silence was broken by a flautist playing "Danny Boy."
The crowd observed another moment's silence at 10:03 a.m., marking the moment when United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pa., after passengers and crew attempted to retake the aircraft from their hijackers.
Crowds for the ceremony have diminished over the years. But some families hope that this year, with a significant anniversary falling on a weekend, more people will attend.
“Parents of the deceased are getting older, younger people usually can’t make it because of work obligations,” said Tom Acquaviva of Wayne, N.J., whose 29-year-old son, Paul, a father of two, died on 9/11. “But I hope this year you will see a lot more people than previous years.”
Acquaviva said that although he thinks of Paul daily, the anniversary of the attacks remains a special day. “My wife and I lost everything,” Acquaviva said. “You carry on, but you don’t move on.”
Tom Meehan missed the ceremony last year because of health issues. “It’s part of the aging process,” said Meehan, 73. “And part of living under the stress.”
Meehan, of Toms River, N.J., was determined to attend this year’s event for his daughter, Colleen, who died in the north tower at the age of 26.
“Hearing those names spoken, their memories stay alive,” Meehan said.
It takes about three hours to read all of the names. In recent years, by the end of the ceremony the crowd has thinned to about 100 people.
Several years ago, New York’s then mayor, Michael Bloomberg, raised the possibility of curtailing the readings. Meehan, like many other families, is opposed to that.
“I would like to hope that future generations would understand the importance of reading the names and continue it,” he said.
That final moment has particular resonance for Peter Bitwinski, an accountant for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
In 2001, the Port Authority’s comptroller’s department was located in the World Trade Center’s north tower, about 25 floors below where the first plane struck.
That day, Bitwinski and nine colleagues helped a quadriplegic friend, John Abruzzo, into a special evacuation chair and took turns guiding the chair down 69 flights of stairs.
“We didn’t know we were working against the clock,” Bitwinski said.
They escaped the building 13 minutes before the tower collapsed.
Earlier this week, Bitwinski was on his hands and knees in the memorial plaza, close to the reflecting pools that mark the footprints where the twin towers once stood. Through a volunteer program called Remembrance Through Renewal, Bitwinski was preparing the area for Sunday’s ceremony by collecting acorns that had fallen from the plaza’s 400 white swamp oak trees and scraping chewing gum from the floor.
Bitwinski, who is 63 and lives in Bayonne, N.J., said he will attend the memorial ceremony for as long as he is fit and able.
“I am a fortunate person who survived,” Bitwinski said. “And in memory of everybody who didn’t make it, I think it’s important for me to honor them.”
Berger reported from New York; Hook from Pennsylvania. Contributing: John Bacon