As it had for the first two anniversaries of the September 11 attacks, one of the most vibrant cities on Earth paused for a moment of silence at 08:46 am, the moment when the first of two hijacked airliners smashed into the twin World Trade Centre towers. 

Clutching flowers and framed photographs of their lost loved ones, family members of the 2749 people who perished, many of them in tears, descended a ramp into the pit of Ground Zero for a sombre ceremony of remembrance. 

Many gathered, their heads bowed, around two pools of water - representing a scaled-down version of what will become a permanent memorial to the victims. 

Within half an hour, every inch of the pools' surface had been covered with white, yellow, red and pink roses.

Roster of victims 

Standing in silence, the pilgrims listened as some 200 parents and grandparents of those who died took turns reading the roster of victims from an elevated platform at the edge of the site.

"A man who loses his wife is a widower. A woman who loses her husband is a widow," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at the start of the ceremony.

"There is no name for a parent who loses a child, for there are no words to describe this pain"

Michael Bloomberg,
New York Mayor

"There is no name for a parent who loses a child, for there are no words to describe this pain." 

At the second anniversary last year, the roll call of names had been led by the victims' children. 

The readers took to the podium in pairs, each one reciting 14 names, ending with that of their own relative.

Personal messages

Some of their voices choked up tearfully over the roster, while others signed off with brief, personal messages of their own.

"And our best friend, the light of our family, our son Michael Bradley Finnegan," said one elderly relative. 

High above, on the side of the nearby World Financial Centre, a large banner read "We Will Never Forget." 

For a significant number of victims' families, Ground Zero remains a sacred place, not least because the authorities have been able to identify the remains of only 1570 of those who died. 

With construction already well under way at the site, it was possibly a last chance for relatives to descend to the bedrock area under which many of their loved ones will always be buried. 

Mix of nationalities

The mix of nationalities among the families was reflected by the variety of small flags - from Ecuador, Honduras, Colombia and Italy - hanging from a piece of scaffolding at the site. 

Ground Zero is a sacred place for
relatives of the 2749 victims

Firefighter Fabrizio Bivona, who lost two colleagues when the twin towers collapsed, said he had written and published a small book, Gone But Not Forgotten, as a personal tribute. 

"When I was digging in the rubble looking for my friends, I made myself a promise: If we didn't find them, I will take care that they will never be forgotten," Bivona said.

"I've seen how the families respond, and I know it gives them a lot of solace and comfort," he said of the Ground Zero ceremony. 

Firefighters remembered

One relative, Nancy Brandermarti, took the podium to read a poem her family composed for her son Nick, who died just short of his 22nd birthday. 

"Remembering you is easy/We do it every day/It's the heartache of losing you/That never goes away," she recited. 

Saturday's remembrance began with bagpipers and drummers leading in a US flag that had flown over the Ground Zero site for more than a month after the attacks. 

New York police stations and firehouses held their own ceremonies to remember the 23 police officers and 343 firefighters who died trying to save others.