On 15th anniversary of 9/11, mourners gather at three sites hit by terrorists

Sept. 11 dawned cool and gray in New York City as mourners gathered in Lower Manhattan for an annual act of remembrance.

At the same moment, 300 miles to the east, hundreds more mourners gathered near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at the site of the Flight 93 National Memorial.

On this day in 2001, nearly 3,000 people died at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania. In New York, the yearly ceremony at the 9/11 Memorial commemorating the victims at Ground Zero began at 8:40 a.m.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was in attendance, as were presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, who was a U.S. senator for New York when the attack occurred, and Donald Trump.

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President Barack Obama addressed the nation in a video released Saturday by the White House. He praised the “resilience” of Americans. “We stand with the survivors who still bear the scars of that day. We thank the first responders who risked everything to save others. And we salute a generation of Americans – our men and women in uniform, diplomats, and our intelligence, homeland security and law enforcement professionals – who serve, and have given their lives, to help keep us safe,” he said.

But though he touted the gains America had made in fighting terrorism, he also cautioned against divisiveness, saying: “We cannot give in to those who would divide us. We cannot react in ways that erode the fabric of our society. Because it’s our diversity, our welcoming of all talent, our treating of everybody fairly – no matter their race, gender, ethnicity or faith. That’s part of what makes our country great.”

Sunday, in remarks at the Pentagon, Obama praised the military and paid homage to those who lost their lives in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania that day. But his remarks also carried a more pointedly political message.

At a time when Trump has called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, Obama outlined a contrasting vision. He offered a different definition of American strength.

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“Groups like al-Qaida and ISIL know that they will never be able to defeat a nation as great and as strong as America,” Obama said, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State militant group. The goal of those terrorist groups, he said, is to “stoke enough fear that we turn on each other as a nation, that we change who we are and how we live.”

He urged Americans to view the anniversary of the attacks as an opportunity to “reaffirm our character as a nation” and, in what could be interpreted as a veiled reference to Trump’s immigration proposals, “not to let others divide us.”

“In the end, the most enduring memorial to those we lost is ensuring the America we continue to be,” Obama said. “That we stay true to ourselves. That we stay true to what’s best in us.”

Obama described an America made up of “people drawn from every corner of the world, every color, every religion every background.”

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“We know that our diversity, our patchwork heritage is not a weakness,” Obamae said. “This is the America that was attacked that September morning.”

The president’s speech was preceded by more bellicose remarks from Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who warned that terrorists who threaten the United States will “come to feel the righteous fist of American might.”

“Our memory is long, and our reach and resolve is endless,” Carter said.

Much has changed in the 15 years since the attacks. One World Trade Center now glistens above a revitalized Lower Manhattan. On most weekdays, thousands of New Yorkers teem through the streets below, but in the early hours Sunday, the narrow roads were sparsely occupied.

The family of Erwin Erker, who perished in the North Tower, were among many quietly making their way toward the memorial. Erker’s sister-in-law, Margaret Schmidt, recalled him as a man who “loved life, camping and his family.”

Schmidt said that although the family does not come to the ceremony each year, they try to come “on the bigger years” – the fifth anniversary, 10th and this year’s 15th.

“If you count every year, it’s overwhelming. But we remember every day,” she said.

In Pennsylvania, hundreds gathered to honor the 40 passengers and crew of the United Airlines jet that crashed there.

The crash site commemorates the spontaneous actions of those on board who rebeled against the plane’s four hijackers, forcing the aircraft down in the rural valley of the Allegheny mountains in western Pennsylvania.

Firefighters arrived Sunday to pay homage in uniform. So too did United flight attendants who laid roses at the marble wall bearing the names of their seven colleagues.

“Any one of us could have been flying that day,” said Ernie Cornejo, a United flight attendant.

Evidence gathered after the fact concluded that passengers and crew had tried to re-take control of the flight – beginning their attack with “Let’s roll,” a mantra that came to that the embody national resolve. The terrorists were planning to strike the U.S. Capitol building.

The jet was just 20 minutes from Washington when it went down in the Pennsylvania field, leaving the ground smoldering.

Today, the area around the site is a quiet field of wildflowers.

Greg Jaffe contributed to this report.