By Laura Petrecca, Rick Hampson, and Gary Strauss, USA TODAY
A nation that stepped back from the brink of war with Syria Tuesday paused Wednesday to honor and reflect on the nearly 3,000 victims of 9/11, the day terrorist attacks spurred two other long-running conflicts in the Middle East.
In New York, hundreds of friends and families of the victims stood silently - many holding up photos of their loved ones - as bagpipes played. Relatives of those killed were to recite the names of those killed when two hijacked commercial airliners slammed into World Trade Center's Twin Towers, another crashed the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., and a fourth plunged into the ground near Shanksville, Pa.
PHOTOS: Sept. 11, 2001
"No matter how many years pass, this time comes around each year - and it's always the same," said Karen Hinson of Seaford, N.Y., who lost her 34-year-old brother, Michael Wittenstein, a Cantor Fitzgerald employee. "My brother was never found, so this is where he is for us."
Denise Matuza, 46, from Staten Island, lost her husband, Walter, on 9/11. She plans to keep returning to the memorial ceremony each Sept. 11. "We'll still keep coming back," she said, as her 21-year-old son, also named Walter, and two other sons stood nearby.
In Shanksville, dozens of relatives of those who perished aboard United Flight 93 gathered at the crash site.
"This allows us to reconnect with each other and share the day together and the sorrow," said Gordon Felt, who lost his brother Ed. "We reignite the memories of that day, so that we don't forget what happened."
PHOTOS: 9/11 terror attacks timeline
What happened on United 93, according to a federal commission, was as heroic as it was tragic.
After four hijackers seized control, passengers rebelled and rushed the cockpit.
The plane, which the commission said the hijackers probably planned to fly into the U. S. Capitol, crashed into the Somerset County countryside. The hijackers and all 40 passengers and crew were killed.
Their names will be read and bells will be rung at a ceremony to start at 9:45, a.m., about the time investigators say passengers tried to re-take the plane.
Sally Hoagland, whose son Mark Bingham was on the flight, agreed with Felt that the anniversary serves a purpose. "I dread the day but I also welcome it, because we reconnect and because it's easier to be sad with other people who are, too."
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She was one of thousands around the nation who volunteered to work on various projects as part of a 9/11 National Day of Service, a campaign launched in 2002 by victims' relatives and supporters.
"It helped turn around 9/11 for me," by making the anniversary a more positive occasion, said Hoagland, who planned to help fix up a fire training facility.
The observance here was low key compared to recent years. The event was attended by First Lady Michelle Obama in 2010; by President Obama on the 10th anniversary in 2011 and by Vice President Joe Biden last year.
But there were several milestones for the families to applaud: ground was broken Tuesday for the memorial visitors center, and a National Park Service charity announced that $40 million had been raised to finish the building the memorial.
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While preparations for New York's ceremony were underway, with police barricades blocking access to the site, life around the World Trade Center looked like any other morning, with workers rushing to their jobs and construction cranes looming over the area.
Name-reading, wreath-laying and other tributes also will be held at the Pentagon - including a morning ceremony for victims' relatives and an after observance for Pentagon employees - and at the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, where construction is beginning on a visitor center.
President Obama was expected to be at the World Trade Center and later at the Pentagon.
Wednesday began as a normal weekday for many New Yorkers. They walked their dogs, went for morning runs, got their kids ready for school and griped about the late summer heat and humidity.
PHOTOS: Obamas, Bidens mark 9/11 anniversary
In the downtown financial area, hordes of professionally dressed workers scurried down the streets and into towering buildings.
But in the nearby Sept. 11 memorial - where families and friends of those who died gatherers to mark the anniversary of the terrorist attacks -- the atmosphere was calmer and more serene. Noise from the memorial waterfalls could easily be heard above the voices of the small crowd that had gathered by 8 a.m. At times, bagpipes played.
Some people invited to the memorial - which contained a much smaller group of attendees than this time during last year's anniversary - hugged and kissed each other. Others held photos of their loved one who had perished.
One woman wore a shirt that was emblazoned with the image of a woman's face. "We love & miss you" it said.
Like she has done in years' past, Kent Place School teacher Reba Petraitis will have a special lesson about remembrance and memorials on Wednesday. Since the majority of her 12th graders at the Summit, N.J., school don't have clear memories of 9/11, Petraitis tells them to think about another loss that affected them, such as the death of a grandparent, and then talk about the need to memorialize others.
"It's really a highly emotional lesson," Petraitis says.
For most of those students, "Sept. 11 is history - they don't remember it," she says. "I also ask them to go home and ask their parents what are their memories of the day to foster family discussions."
Throughout the school year, Petraitis and her students also discuss domestic and international terrorism, school shootings, what makes someone decide to become a terrorist and what students can do "to make this world a better place to live."
The class is a senior elective on contemporary history, she says, but it has a large focus on terrorism and 9/11.
She notes that as time goes on, the attacks will become "more history than a living event."
But "as long as there are museums and memorials, then there are reminders (of Sept. 11, 2001)," she says. "And that's the reason for the memorials."
In New York City's firehouse Engine 20, Ladder 20, there was solace in the air. Tuesday night. About a dozen people stood in front of a Yet at nearby New York City firehouse Engine 20, Ladder 10, there was an air of solace. Just about a dozen people stood in front of a bronze memorial wall dedicated to the 343 firefighters who were killed on 9/11.
Two women approached the six-foot high memorial and rubbed their hands over the etched faces of the firefighters. One man, who had just been looking at the firefighter names listed beneath, did the sign of the cross.
Next to the bronze plaque, a lone, lit candle flickered in front of a framed display that had rows of photos of the deceased New York City firefighters.
In front of the bronze wall sat a few bouquets of fresh flowers as well as one large red, white and blue floral arrangement.
EarthCam has shared a commemorative time-lapse video of the progress at Ground Zero, including the rise of One World Trade Center. The time lapse begins in October 2004 and ends in September 2013. You can watch the video below.
Contributing: Associated Press