Blue lights representing those killed Sept. 11, 2001, in New York shine… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)
WASHINGTON — With bells and moments of silence, the nation marked the 11th anniversary of the day terrorists used hijacked airliners to topple the twin towers of Manhattan's World Trade Center and damage the Pentagon. A fourth airliner, apparently en route to a Washington target, plunged into a Pennsylvania field as passengers challenged the hijackers.
Nearly 3,000 people died that day.
During ceremonies at all three sites, relatives and friends mourned the victims with tender and personal remembrances. There were no political speakers at the New York observance, as there have been in the past. Nor did security officials raise any special alerts.
But as in years past, New York's memorial began with a bagpipe procession, followed by an honor guard and the reading of all the victims' names in alphabetical order by relatives, who often added personal messages.
"Your family and friends miss you. We will never forget, Johnny," Martin Collins said to his brother, New York firefighter John Michael Collins.
Listeners clutched flowers and photographs of their loved ones as husbands, wives, sisters, fathers and others took turns at a microphone.
Six moments of silence marked the ceremony: four to note the moments when each jet crashed, and two to note the moments when each World Trade Center tower fell to the ground.
Now, the footprint of each tower is filled with a giant reflecting pool, and victims' names are etched into bronze parapets, allowing visitors to run their hands over the names as they peer into the watery voids.
In downtown Los Angeles, veterans and military personnel gathered to raise 19 flags at the new Grand Park, a "perfect symbol of our collective memory of the first responders as well as the civilian victims of the Sept. 11 attacks," Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina said.
Communities in the area commemorated the day with events that included laying a wreath in Beverly Hills and unveiling a memorial at a Loma Linda fire station. In North Hollywood, 250 veterans and volunteers organized a day of service.
A Fullerton firefighter built a frontyard memorial that includes 343 handmade wooden crosses painted with the names and battalions of the New York firefighters who lost their lives and 3,000 small flags to honor all who died in the attacks.
President Obama and his wife, Michelle, observed a moment of silence on the White House lawn at 8:46 a.m., the moment the first hijacked plane crashed into the World Trade Center.
Then the Obamas went to the Pentagon, where the president joined a Marine honor guard in placing a white floral wreath above a concrete slab that memorializes the date and time of the attack. A moment of silence began at 9:37 a.m., when American Flight 77 hit the west side of the Pentagon.
Both Obama and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta stressed that the nation was stronger today because of how it fought back against terrorists around the world, including in Yemen and North Africa. More than a year ago, U.S. forces killed Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
"No matter how many years pass, no matter how many times we gather on this hallowed ground, know this -- you will never be alone," Obama said. "Your loved ones will never be forgotten."
Obama next went to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, just outside Washington.
In Nevada, his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, thanked members of the National Guard for their service since the Sept. 11 attacks while declaring that the world was still dangerous and chaotic.
"We live in a time of turbulence and disruption," he told guard members and veterans at their conference in Reno. "What I can say with certainty is that we need the National Guard's vigilance and strength now as much as ever before."
Both candidates suspended their negative ads in consideration of the anniversary, and neither spoke overtly of politics during the observances.
In Shanksville, Pa., at the Flight 93 Memorial, Vice President Joe Biden drew on the death of his wife and daughter in a car accident nearly 40 years ago as he addressed families of the victims and hundreds of others in an emotional speech.
He knows from his own life, he said, that "no matter how many anniversaries you experience, for at least an instant the terror of that moment returns."
The 40 passengers and crew aboard Flight 93 fought the hijackers, preventing an attack on the U.S. Capitol or the White House.
"My hope for you all is that as every year passes, the depth of your pain recedes and you find comfort, as I have -- genuine comfort -- in recalling his smile, her laugh, their touch," Biden said in his prepared text. "... For I know you see your wife every time you see her smile on your child's face.... You remember your husband every time your son just touches your hand."
Parsons reported from Washington and Susman from New York. Times staff writers Mitchell Landsberg in Reno, Michael A. Memoli in Washington and Sam Allen in Los Angeles contributed to this report.