NEW YORK — Hand-in-hand, their faces etched in pain, President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush strode purposefully down the seven-story-deep ramp into the gaping hole where the World Trade Center towers once stood.
In the dusty, wind-swept pit below, arrayed in a large circle, awaiting the first couple were hundreds of relatives of those who died a year ago on a day that America will never forget.
After briefly laying a ceremonial wreath, the president and Mrs. Bush immediately began greeting the mourners. And it wasn't long before the president began blinking back tears as he reached deep into the crowd to hug, kiss, salute and, above all, console. At one point, the Bushes paused and then joined the West Point choir in a moving rendition of "America, the Beautiful" as shadows crept across the baleful gathering.
Their visit to ground zero late Wednesday afternoon capped an emotional day that also took the Bushes to the two other sites where hijacked jets crashed a year ago: the Pentagon and a pastoral field in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Here in Lower Manhattan, as in Pennsylvania, the president made no public remarks; instead, he and Mrs. Bush simply laid a wreath and then mingled quietly with the families of those killed on Sept. 11.
The Bushes began the national day of remembrance by attending a private service at St. John's Episcopal Church, just on the other side of Lafayette Park from the White House.
Amid heightened security, the couple emerged from the White House's north entrance at 7:40 a.m., trailed by National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr.
In these rapidly shortening days of late summer, the sun was just topping the trees to the east as the flag atop the Executive Mansion flapped vigorously at half-staff.
Unlike some Sunday services that he attends at the church, when he sits halfway back, Bush on Wednesday settled into a front-row pew, with two Secret Service agents directly behind him.
In all, about 150 guests, including senior White House staffers Karl Rove and Mary Matalin, attended the invitation-only service, filling about three-quarters of the red-cushioned pews.
After the service, the president and first lady participated in a moment of silence on the White House South Lawn to mark the precise moment a year ago when the first hijacked airplane struck the north tower of the World Trade Center. At exactly 15 seconds before 8:46 a.m., the president and first lady emerged, holding hands. They then simply stood, with heads bowed.
They were joined by hundreds of administration officials and White House workers, from groundskeepers in short-sleeved green shirts to military personnel in their crisp dress whites.
Everyone, it seemed, wore commemorative pins--flags with "The White House" stamped on the front, and the dates "September 11, 2001; September 11, 2002" on the back. The pins were distributed Tuesday.
After about a minute, the silence ended and the presidential limousine pulled up, ready to take the first couple to their next destination, the Pentagon.
At the suburban Virginia headquarters of the Defense Department, about 13,500 people gathered in a makeshift stadium in the shadow of the Pentagon's rebuilt exterior wall. Among them was Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson, whose wife, Barbara, was a passenger on the hijacked jet that smashed into the building.
Also in the crowd were two groups of small schoolchildren, the classmates of students who were on that flight.
As Marine Staff Sgt. Kevin Bennear sang the national anthem, four soldiers on the roof directly behind the president attempted to unfurl a gigantic U.S. flag that has flown at the site of the wreckage--a struggle in the face of 20 mph winds.
Another backdrop at the event was a huge billboard suspended from a crane, bearing children's artwork depicting their reactions to the terrorist attacks. As Bush spoke, the cables holding the billboard occasionally clanged loudly against pieces of scaffolding, and the large canvas screens snapped and popped in the wind.
Near the ceremony's conclusion, both the president and first lady waved small flags as they joined in the singing of "God Bless America."
Then, four fighter jets roared low overhead.
In his brief remarks, Bush called the Pentagon "a working building, not a memorial," and he said its rededication earlier this summer served to "renew our commitment to win the war."
The president clearly had in mind his goal of extending the war on terrorism to Iraq, as he warned of "a great deal left to do."
"What happened to our nation on a September day set in motion the first great struggle of a new century," he said.
"And as long as terrorists and dictators plot against our lives and our liberty, they will be opposed by the United States Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force and Marines."
From the Pentagon, he flew to Johnstown, Pa., and then by helicopter to a field in nearby Somerset County, where Flight 93 had crashed.
As at ground zero, the president and his wife spent about an hour with the relatives of those who died at the site.
Some exchanges were lighthearted. One woman told Bush that it was her 86th birthday. The president hugged her and said, "I hope when I'm 86, I look as good as you do."
A relative who runs six miles a day said he would like to run with the president some time. To that, Bush quipped, "I could run the first three with you. But I couldn't keep up with you for the next three."
After the visit to ground zero, the president took a dinner break at his suite in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in Midtown. He then took a New York Fire Department boat to Ellis Island, where he delivered an address to the nation, with the Statue of Liberty in the background.
"Tomorrow is September the 12th," he said. "A milestone is passed, and a mission goes on."