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NEW YORK — There were still the tearful messages to loved ones, clutches of photos and flowers, and moments of silence. But 11 years after Sept. 11, Americans appeared to enter a new, scaled-back chapter of collective mourning for the worst terror attack in U.S history.
Crowds gathered, as always, at the World Trade Center site in New York, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania memorial Tuesday to mourn the nearly 3,000 victims of the 2001 terror attacks, reciting their names and remembering with music, tolling bells and prayer. But they came in fewer numbers, ceremonies were less elaborate and some cities canceled their remembrances altogether. A year after the milestone 10th anniversary, some said the memorials may have reached an emotional turning point.
"It's human nature, so people move on," said Wanda Ortiz, of New York City, whose husband, Emilio Ortiz, was killed in the trade center's north tower, leaving behind her and their 5-month-old twin daughters. "My concern now is ... how I keep the memory of my husband alive."
It was also a year when politicians largely took a back seat to grieving families; no elected officials spoke at all at New York's 3½ -hour ceremony. President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney pulled negative campaign ads and avoided rallies, with the president laying a wreath at the Pentagon ceremony and visiting wounded soldiers at a Maryland hospital. And beyond the victims of the 2001 attacks, attention was paid to the wars that followed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In Middletown, N.J., a bedroom community that lost 37 residents in the attacks, town officials laid a wreath at the entrance to the park in a small, silent ceremony. Last year, 3,700 people attended a remembrance with speeches, music and names read.
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"This year," said Deputy Mayor Stephen Massell, "I think less is more."
Some worried that moving on would mean Sept. 11 will fade from memory.
"It's been 11 years already," said Michael Reneo, whose sister-in-law, Daniela Notaro, was killed at the trade center. "And unfortunately for some, the reality of this day seems to be fading as the years go by. ... I hope we never lose focus on what really happened here."
Thousands had attended the ceremony in New York in previous years, including last year's milestone 10th anniversary. In New York, a crowd of fewer than 200 swelled to about 1,000 by late Tuesday morning, as family members laid roses and made paper rubbings of their loved ones' names etched onto the Sept. 11 memorial. A few hundred attended ceremonies at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pa., fewer than in years past.
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As bagpipes played at the year-old Sept. 11 memorial in New York, families holding balloons, flowers and photos of their loved ones bowed their heads in silence at 8:46 a.m., the moment that the first hijacked jetliner crashed into the trade center's north tower. Bells tolled to mark the moments that planes crashed into the second tower, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field, and the moments that each tower collapsed.
President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama laid a white floral wreath at the Pentagon, above a concrete slab that said "Sept. 11, 2001 937 am." Obama later recalled the horror of the attacks, declaring, "Our country is safer and our people are resilient."
Vice President Joe Biden remembered the 40 victims of the plane that crashed in a field south of Pittsburgh, saying he understood 11 years haven't diminished memories.
"Today is just as monumental a day for all of you, for each of your families, as any Sept. 11 has ever been," he said.
Wearing white ribbons, many wearing T-shirts with their loved ones' pictures, victims' family in New York read loved ones' names, and looked up to the sky to talk to their family even those they hadn't met.
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Juan Torres wasn't old enough to remember his uncle, Luis, "but after all the stories I heard, I knew he was a good man. Although he threw himself from the building, I know God was waiting for him below and caught him in his arms."
Like 2001, this Sept. 11 was on a Tuesday, for the second time since the attacks. The cloudless blue sky and brisk, early fall weather recalled the morning of 2001.
Other ceremonies were held across the country from New York's Long Island, where hundreds wrote messages to their loved ones on a memorial, to Boston, where more than 200 people with ties to Massachusetts were remembered. Two of the hijacked airliners took off from Boston's Logan Airport.
But other cities changed the way they remembered. The New York City suburb of Glen Rock, N.J., where 11 victims lived, did not hold an organized memorial for the first time in a decade. Past commemorations often ran for several hours, with family laying roses in front of a granite memorial built with remnants of the twin towers' steel.
"It was appropriate for this year not that the losses will ever be forgotten," said Brad Jordan, chairman of a Glen Rock community group that helps victims' families. "But we felt it was right to shift the balance a bit from the observance of loss to a commemoration of how the community came together to heal."
Several people attending the ceremonies were related to soldiers who fought in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed 9/11, where the U.S. military death toll years ago surpassed the 9/11 victim count. Elna Tullock, whose son, Hassan Carter, is completing his second tour in Afghanistan and served another two in Iraq, admired the rising One World Trade Center tower.
"This is all connected," she said, pointing to a picture of her son and the tower before her.
Allied military forces marked the anniversary at a short ceremony at NATO's headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan with a tribute to more than 3,000 foreign troops killed in the decade-long war. "Eleven years on from that day there should be no doubt that our dedication to this commitment, that commitment that was seared into our souls that day so long ago, remains strong and unshaken," said Marine Gen. John Allen, the top commander of U.S. and coalition troops.
At least 1,987 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan and 4,475 in Iraq, according to the Pentagon.
In Norfolk, Va., about 1,100 sailors and Marines aboard the USS New York, a warship forged with 7.5 tons of steel salvaged from the trade center, listened to "Proud to be an American" and observed moments of silence for the moments the airliners hit their targets and read the death toll out loud.
"We often tell people, it's not just about that one day," said Capt. John Kreitz, the USS New York's commanding officer. "The spirit here is really about what happened the next day and the next day and every day since."