NEW YORK (AP) — Sept. 11 victims' relatives marked the anniversary of the terror attacks Friday in a subdued gathering at ground zero, saying their determination to commemorate their loss publicly hadn't dimmed even as 14 years have passed and crowds at the ceremony have thinned.
Hundreds of victims' relatives — fewer than thronged the observances in their early years — gathered for what has become a tradition of tolling bells, moments of silence and the reading of the names of the nearly 3,000 people killed in the terror strikes at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
"We come every year. The crowds get smaller, but we want to be here. As long as I'm breathing, I'll be here," said Tom Acquaviva, 81, who lost his son, Paul Acquaviva, a systems analyst who died in the trade center's north tower.
Carrying photos emblazoned with the names of their loved ones, victims' relatives prayed for peace, praised first responders and the armed forces and, mostly, sent personal messages of enduring loss and remembrance to loved ones some had never even had the chance to know.
"I wish I could meet you," Valerie Arnold said to the memory of her uncle, firefighter Michael Boyle, who was off-duty but responded to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, before she was born.
For Nereida Valle, who lost her daughter, Nereida De Jesus, "It's the same as if it was yesterday. I feel her every day."
In Washington, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama stepped out of the White House at 8:46 a.m. — when the first plane hit the north tower — to observe a moment of silence. Later Friday, President Obama was scheduled to observe the anniversary with a visit to Fort Meade, Maryland, in recognition of the military's work to protect the country.
The Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville in western Pennsylvania was marking the completion of its visitor center, which opened to the public Thursday. At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Ash Carter and other officials were joining in remembrances for victims' relatives and Pentagon employees.
Elsewhere, Ohio's statehouse was displaying nearly 3,000 flags — representing the lives lost — in an arrangement designed to represent the sites of the attacks. Sacramento, California, was commemorating 9/11 in conjunction with a parade honoring three Sacramento-area friends who tackled a heavily armed gunman on a Paris-bound high-speed train last month.
Some Americans were observing the anniversary in their own ways.
"I don't go to the memorial. I don't watch it on TV. But I make sure, every year, I observe a moment of silence at 8:46," electrician Jeff Doran, 41, said Friday as he stood across the street from the trade center, where the signature, 1,776-foot One World Trade Center tower has opened since last Sept. 11.
After years of private commemorations at ground zero, the anniversary now also has become an occasion for public reflection on the site of the terror attacks.
An estimated 20,000 people flocked to the memorial plaza on the evening of Sept. 11 last year, the first year the public was able to visit on the anniversary. The plaza was to open three hours earlier after the anniversary ceremony.
"When we did open it up, it was just like life coming in," National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum President Joe Daniels said this week. While the memorial will still be reserved for victims' relatives and other invitees during the morning ceremony, afterward, "the general public that wants to come and pay their respects on this most sacred ground should be let in as soon as possible."
In Washington, some members of Congress planned to spend part of the anniversary discussing federal funding for the ground zero memorial. The House Natural Resources Committee has scheduled a hearing Friday on a proposal to provide up to $25 million a year for the plaza. The federal government contributed heavily to building the institution; leaders have tried unsuccessfully for years to get Washington to chip in for annual costs, as well.
An estimated 21 million people have visited the plaza for free since its 2011 opening.
The museum, which charges up to $24 per ticket, has seen almost 3.6 million visitors since its May 2014 opening, topping projections by about 5 percent, Daniels said. Any federal funding could lead to expanded discounts for school and other groups, but there are no plans to lower the regular ticket price, he said.
This year's anniversary also comes as advocates for 9/11 responders and survivors are pushing Congress to extend two federal programs that promised billions of dollars in compensation and medical care. Both programs are set to expire next year.
Army Sgt. Edwin Morales had those responders in mind as he attended the ground zero ceremony in remembrance of his cousin firefighter Ruben "Dave" Correa.
"We must never forget that day. People are still dying because of what happened," both on battlefields and from illnesses that some who responded to the attacks have developed after exposure to toxic dust, Morales said.
Associated Press writer Karen Matthews contributed to this report. Reach Jennifer Peltz on Twitter @ jennpeltz and Jonathan Lemire on Twitter @ JonLemire.