Remembering the unforgettable, America gathers

At churches, we prayed. At fire stations, we laid wreaths. At football stadiums, hands and baseball caps over hearts, we lifted our voices in song and familiar chants of "USA!" — our patriotism renewed once more as we allowed ourselves to go back in time, to the planes and the towers and the panic and the despair, to the memories that scar us still.

On Sunday, the 10th anniversary of the nation's worst terror attack, Americans remembered — in our own ways, all across the land — a day that is simply impossible to forget.

"Would it be nice not to see the planes fly into the buildings all the time? Yes. But we can honor all the people," said 37-year-old Lea Pfeifer, who marked the anniversary by participating in a "Freedom Walk" at Virginia's Arlington National Cemetery along with her husband and 2-year-old son. "I think we carry that horror with us every day."

Far from the main ceremonies in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington — on small-town main streets and in courthouse squares, in big-city parks and on statehouse steps — thousands upon thousands gathered to unveil monuments, pledge allegiance and celebrate resilience.

The anniversary was remembered with public gatherings and private ceremonies, with gestures large and small. Facebook profile pictures were changed to American flags. Online tributes allowed people to recall where they were that morning a decade ago when American life forever changed. Said one in a Yahoo news tweet: "Heard about it in geography class. Saw footage in a piano lesson later — not a note played for the entire hour."

The nationwide memorials were as distinct as America itself: In Las Vegas, firefighters and police officers ascended the 108-story Stratosphere. In Nashville, Tenn., at a honky-tonk that bills itself as "Hillbilly Heaven," a five-piece country band played gospel as a goateed preacher talked about Sept. 11 between songs.

"We can't avoid the suffering that life brings," evangelical preacher Ron Blakley said. "But good things can happen on a bad day."

On this day, there were motorcycle rides in Alaska and California, a blood drive and dog walk in Texas, a Beach Boys concert in Colorado and many more events aptly named to capture the pervading themes surrounding the anniversary. In Grand Prairie, Texas, the First United Methodist Church saluted service members and first responders with a "Spirit of America Musical." In Cooper City, Fla., the American Legion planned a "Let Us Not Forget" poker run to raise money for care packages for soldiers overseas.

In a small park next to the county courthouse in Bennington, Vt., senior citizens watched from lawn chairs as Boy Scouts presented wreaths and World War II veterans rang the bell of an aircraft carrier four times — one for each attack of Sept. 11, 2001. A monument containing steel from the World Trade Center was exhibited as one victim's father spoke to the hundreds gathered, calling for hope over whatever anguish might linger.

"It is easy to look at that piece of steel and despair," said Don Goodrich, 68, whose son Peter perished when United Airlines Flight 175 hit the south tower of the World Trade Center. "But despair is what Osama bin Laden and those whose follow him want for us. This we must not do."

In Richmond, Va., Mary Purcell attended a 9/11 remembrance ceremony to represent her mother, who was too overcome with emotions that came flooding back 10 years after her close brush with the attacks. Mary Bannister was headed to the World Trade Center for a meeting when the first plane struck, her daughter said.

"She couldn't cry that date because she was running for her life," Purcell said. "This weekend, though, is affecting her greatly. She has shed a lot of tears for the fallen."

Purcell said the annual 9/11 anniversaries have not had the same effect on her mother as this one.

"It took 10 years to hit home for my mother," Purcell said. "She saw a lot that day."

Some, like Georgia firefighter Doug Harms, had never done much to mark the anniversary in years past but felt compelled this time to take part.

Harms chose to organize an event in front of the DeKalb County police and fire headquarters in suburban Atlanta, where several hundred people — including dozens of police officers and firefighters in uniform — gathered for the dedication of a memorial to the first responders who died in the attacks.

A giant flag hung from the extended ladders of two fire trucks served as a backdrop as part of an I-beam from one of the World Trade Center towers — centerpiece of a new sculpture — arrived at the memorial in a motorcade of emergency vehicles. A police officer played bagpipes, the Pledge of Allegiance was led by a retired New York City police officer and volunteer firefighter who survived the collapse of the second tower, and an invocation was delivered by an imam.

"I know that if I'd been in New York that day, I would have been in the towers with them," said Harms. "Any one of us would have."

In New Hampshire, Jayne Peck, 53, of Concord, said she had planned to watch the anniversary services from home on TV but decided Sunday morning to attend a two-hour long ceremony outside the state Capitol instead.

"Just the sense of being here, it's more real," she said. "I can't quite put it into words. I just wanted to be here."

It was like that for so many — that need to be with others, whether to stand in silence or share memories or find ways to do something that mattered.

To 80-year-old Martha Ann Baird, there was no sweeter sound on this day than that of the hammers and saws used to build seven homes as part of a Habitat for Humanity event in Nashville. She said she couldn't imagine sitting at home, watching the endless loop of Sept. 11 sadness on television. As she cut a moisture barrier sheet so other volunteers could attach it to the side of a dove-grey home, she said focusing on the future — on building and moving ahead — was a more positive way to commemorate the day.

"We need to be erasing the barriers instead of calling to mind the things that have been divisive," she said.

In Joplin, Mo., a town itself devastated by tragedy when 160 people were killed in the nation's deadliest tornado in decades, hundreds of storm survivors and residents stood patiently in line waiting to sew a single stitch into an American flag recovered near ground zero.

The tattered banner was brought to Joplin by New York venture capitalist Jeff Parness, whose close friend was in the Windows of the World restaurant when the attacks occurred, and Charlie Vitchers, a former ground zero construction supervisor who recovered the flag and kept it in storage at his summer home until three years ago. They decided to take it to disaster sites around the nation as a symbol of hope and perseverance. On Sunday in Joplin, the final threads were being put into place.

The symbolism meant a lot to 73-year-old Patricia Thompson, who lost her home in the Joplin disaster but survived by hunkering down in her bathtub.

"It's stitching everybody together," she said after sliding a needle through a nylon panel.

For just as many Americans, it was important to go on with life as usual — the anniversary still ever-present but tucked away in their hearts and minds. Groceries were bought. Sunday brunches still enjoyed. Previously scheduled trips made despite recent terror warnings.

At Chicago's Union Train Station, 20-year-old Mike Parker sat talking with a friend as he waited to catch a train to St. Louis, where he studies finance in college. A TV station a few feet away showed live coverage of the 9/11 ceremonies in New York. "It's definitely on my mind," said Parker, in part because of his travels but, more so, "like everyone else I can remember where I was" — in his case, standing in a kitchen with his mother, a 10-year-old boy confused by the startling images on a TV set.

Tucker Manion and Cara Kalriess spent the morning of the anniversary at a table outside a Starbucks on a cloudless day in downtown Denver.

"I don't know what the protocol would be for commemorating the 10-year anniversary," said Manion. He and Kalriess had nothing special planned to mark the day.

Kalriess added: "I don't think the 10-year anniversary has any specific relevance. It's a reflection every year."

Across the country, thousands filled football stadiums on this the first Sunday of the NFL season. The sound of "Taps" echoed on big-screen monitors, played by a lone bugler in a Pennsylvania field near where Flight 93 went down. At the Baltimore Ravens game, as a huge flag was unfurled on the field, the chants began and quickly swelled: "U-S-A! U-S-A!"

Such scenes stood in stark contrast to those of a decade ago, when sporting events were postponed in the aftermath of the attacks, when life everywhere went on pause.

On Sunday, some just didn't want to hit the pause button again. It was, in some ways, a stubborn show of how America survived the attacks, of how life really did go on. Said one American on an Internet message board dedicated to Army paratroopers:

"I'll be spending the 9/11 anniversary celebrating. My cousin is getting married that Sunday at a B&B just outside NYC. I think that's an appropriate proof that life goes on — the terrorists didn't 'win,' and Americans are still living their lives in freedom."

That balancing act of looking back and going on was apparent in so many places Sunday — even at Fire Station No. 9.

At 9:59 a.m. exactly, the Raleigh, N.C., department held its own moment of silence. A captain and two firefighters stood in front of their truck, heads bowed and red light flashing. Six people, 3-year-old Colby Guy included, stood with them as traffic passed on busy Six Forks Road.

Colby's father, Steve Guy, said he brought his son because he hoped to start a new tradition of coming to the fire station to mark the anniversary of the terror attacks.

"It will be nice to remember the days I took him to the fire department on 9/11," Guy said.

Their own commemoration didn't last long, however. As the moment of silence ended, these first responders suddenly began scrambling.

"We've got a fire," one explained.

As the emergency truck pulled out, siren wailing and lights flashing, Guy cradled Colby in his arms. The little boy stared as the firefighters went to work. Then, he waved goodbye.


Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Matthew Barakat in Arlington, Va.; Ken Ritter in Las Vegas; Tamara Lush in Nashville, Tenn.; John Curran in Bennington, Vt.; Larry O'Dell in Richmond, Va; Kate Brumback in Atlanta; Holly Ramer in Concord, N.H.; Alan Scher Zagier in Joplin, Mo.; Michael Tarm in Chicago; P. Solomon Banda in Denver; and Martha Waggoner in Raleigh, N.C.