They had marched through the night from the boroughs of Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and from the northern end of Manhattan.
By the time the sun was casting long shadows between the downtown towers the footsore musicians had led the way to Ground Zero, pied piper-like, for thousands who had come to memorialize, to pray and to hope for better times ahead.
It was a year to the day. A very quick year.
It was a few degrees warmer in New York City last Wednesday morning than it was on Sept. 11, 2001. More humid too.
But as the solemn commemoration began the wind began to pick up.
It blew strong from the northwest. The temperature and humidity dropped and apart from the rising gusts it could have been the very day that all had gathered to remember. A pristine fall day. At least everywhere else but here.
Here, in this sorrowful place, the rising wind blew great clouds of dust from the concrete-lined canyon where once the Twin Towers reached seven stories deep in search of a lasting foundation, and a hundred stories high in search of earthly success that was always more than earthbound.
The stronger gusts spawned a thunderous noise every time they hit the public address microphones. The roaring sound did not stop the reading of the names of all who had died in this place.
There were names hinting of every corner of the globe. And names that spoke of Ireland. So many Irish names among the rollcall of 2,801 dead. Gallaghers, Ryans, Kellys and Kennedys, Macs and Os, Ahearn, Talty. Timothy Stackpole, a hero firefighter twice over.
Father Mychal Judge. Uncannily, the name of the fire department chaplain was read out at virtually the moment of the hour that he had died. The moment when the south tower fell.
On and on went the list. It was so long that the schedule of the memorial ceremony fell behind by close to an hour and a half, or roughly the time span between the planes striking the towers and the great buildings falling to earth.
The musical program turned full circle, Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” taking to the air with the dust twice. “Danny Boy” on flute floated skyward too.
The reading of names was not continuous. There were moments of silence at the four points on the clock that matched those of each plane hitting a tower, and when each tower collapsed.
Each was preceded by ringing church bells and ships’ sirens: Sounds designed to alert and sounds that were a call to prayer.
The final moment of silent contemplation at Ground Zero came at 10:29 a.m., the minute of the morning when the second tower had collapsed.
The silence was breached by the sound of fire trucks screaming down nearby Broadway on an emergency call. Some winced at the sound and many hearts beat faster.
The morning’s commemoration, which included New Jersey’s Gov. Jim McGreevey reading strong-voiced from the Declaration of Independence, was only the beginning of a day of religious services and commemorative events.
In the late afternoon, President Bush arrived to meet with relatives of the 9/11 victims.
By evening, politicians from around the world, gathered in the city for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, convened just south of Ground Zero for a sunset ceremony in Battery Park, a swathe of green amid downtown’s forest of steel and concrete.
Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen was among them. He spoke afterward of the setting sun being a symbol of a settling of a sense of determination, resilience and hope over the wounded city.
Together with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the visitors took part in the lighting of an eternal flame.
It was a fitting end to a day when the millions who call New York City home paused to remember another day when eternity came calling from a sky so blue it could only have been the doorway to heaven.