NEW YORK – The sounds of melodious song and mournful prayer filled the crisp, brilliant autumn air, still thick with the stench of smoky rubble, as grieving families and city workers gathered Sunday where the World Trade Center once stood.
They were there to remember those they had lost, to embrace, to weep, and to grasp at any strands of closure or solace they could find.
"We come to you this afternoon as your children who are hurting," began the blessing of New York Archbishop Edward Cardinal Egan, who delivered a poetic eulogy to the victims of the tragedy.
The Sunday afternoon memorial service at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan was the first time family members of the nearly 5,000 victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks came together in one place — and the closest most had been to the site where their relatives died.
"I felt him so close to me," said Iliana Flores, 40, who clutched a photograph of her firefighter brother Carlos "Rey" Lillo to her heart. "I feel comfort. I know he's in heaven. He was our hero."
The photograph she held was of her younger brother, 37, helping a woman out of one of the towers after it was struck by a hijacked commercial airliner. He went back inside to save more people — and died in the collapse.
Though local dignitaries like New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Gov. George Pataki and Sen. Hillary Clinton attended the event, no politicians spoke at the 90-minute service, which instead mixed only songs and prayers.
"They were innocent, and they were brutally, unjustly taken from us," Egan told the crowd of about 2,000 family members, rescue workers, city officials, and journalists. "They were strong. They were good. And their lives and futures were snuffed out by villains."
Security was tight at the 2 p.m. ceremony, which was limited to city workers and families of the victims — of whom more than 4,000 still haven't been accounted for. Some relatives opted not to attend because it was too painful.
Cleanup crews stopped their work for 24 hours starting Saturday night in honor of Sunday's memorial ceremony. It was only the second time work at the site has been halted, the first during a moment of silence on Oct. 11 at 8:48 a.m. — one month to the minute after the first hijacked plane struck the Trade Center's north tower.
Sunday's interfaith service took place overlooking the wreckage of twisted metal and crumbled concrete, which Giuliani has called a mass grave. American flags whipped in the fall wind as pigeons crisscrossed in flight above the crowd. Smoke from the ash of the ruins rose into the sky, above the skeleton of the World Trade Center and nearby blackened, burned buildings.
Giuliani, Pataki and other local and religious leaders flanked the podium on the stage — which they shared with the Orchestra of St. Luke's, opera singers Renee Fleming and Andrea Bocelli and Broadway musical composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Bocelli sang "Ave Maria," and Fleming did "Amazing Grace" and an emotional rendition of "America the Beautiful." Webber played the fitting musical tune "Let Us Love in Peace" on piano, with Broadway singer Shonaugh Daly on vocals.
"Close your eyes, try to visualize, just one normal day," Daly sang. "Time to simply sit and grieve. Time to learn how to believe. Time to love in peace."
Some in the sad, silent crowd of family members held up pictures of those they lost. Others waved flowers and flags. Many wept openly.
The sun dipped and a chill crept into the air just as the service ended, shortly before 4 p.m. Relatives clustered to pick purple and yellow roses from the display hedge framing the stage before lining up to get a closer glimpse of their loved ones' final resting place.
Once at the chain link fence overlooking the vast pile of debris, they stared numbly at the rubble. Some fastened their eyes on the sign tacked high to one of the buildings in the background: "WE WILL NEVER FORGET."
"For a large number of families, the idea of being at the site was very important to them," Giuliani said Saturday at City Hall. "It was important to them to pray, and to feel a connection to the people they lost."
After the service, victims' relatives had the chance to go to the family assistance center at Pier 94 to pick up a folded American flag and a wooden urn filled with ash and soot from the ruins at Ground Zero, as promised by Giuliani earlier this month.
"They don't have closure and the urn isn't going to give them closure, but something is better than nothing," said Molly Hind of New Jersey, whose 31-year-old nephew, Bill Dean, died in the disaster.
"It's a symbol," her husband, Bill Hind, added.
Molly said the family would keep the ash-filled urn for Dean's children to do with as they wish when they grow up. His wife is pregnant with their second baby.
"It's been devastating," Molly Hind said. "I'm hoping this is the beginning of the end of the tears."
The city settled on the urn idea after learning that con men were peddling phony mementos from the Trade Center ruins to family members, according to Giuliani. Authorities have said that many of the victims' bodies may never be recovered from the 1.2 million tons of rubble.
Flores said her mother planned to keep the urn in her house and add it to the shrine she's begun making for Lillo, the youngest sibling.
Not everyone planned to take an urn home. Charlie Scibetta, 35 — who lost his wife, Cantor Fitzgerald accountant Adrienna Scibetta, in the attacks — said he wouldn't take the soil from Ground Zero because the remains of the terrorists were also mixed into the ash.
"I will accept the flag," said the widowed father of two small children, his eyes red and full of tears as he held a photo of 31-year-old Adrienna to his chest. "I will frame it and put my wife's picture on it. When the kids get older, I will explain what happened to their mom."