U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson paid tribute to the town of Gander, N.L. for its generosity on 9/11, hailing its residents for their grace and good humour and representing "the best of us."

Jacobson was a key speaker at the memorial ceremony held at the town's hockey rink, where two steel girders from the World Trade Center were presented by a New York City firefighter to thank the town for its hospitality toward stranded air travellers on Sept. 11, 2001. The girders will remain in the town's aviation museum.

With a tremor in his voice, Jacobson reminisced about the tireless efforts of all the town's residents and surrounding communities during that day 10 years ago, and the days that followed.

"This could well be the motto of this town: 'Without waiting to be asked,'" Jacobson said.

He spoke about one stranded passenger, a child, who turned four in Gander soon after 9/11. All his gifts were stuck on the plane he had been on, so to make him feel better, a local Gander family threw him a party.

"They consoled and they cooked, they cooked and they cooked," Jacobson recalled.

Jacobson also thanked the hundreds of Canadians, including those in Vancouver, Halifax, Montreal and Toronto, who helped thousands of stranded passengers.

The Gander ceremony began with a group prayer with its mayor, Claude Elliott, taking the podium first to honour the "beautiful acts of humanity" that happened on Sept. 11, 2001.

"Good can triumph over evil all the time," said Elliott who was recently in Washington D.C. to accept an international resiliency award for town residents. Gander, with a population barely hitting 10,000, welcomed 6,600 stranded passengers that fateful day.

Elliott told Jacobson that residents didn't need any accolades for their generosity.

'We wanted to do it'

Residents have been singled out for their tireless efforts in making strangers feel at home, opening their houses, filling prescriptions without charge and making sure people felt comfortable bedding down in schools and church halls.

"We wanted to do it. The smiles of the people who left Gander was sufficient for us," said Elliott, who ended his speech with a quote: 'What you do for yourself dies with you but what you do for others lives on.'"

Monica Burke, 44, a 911 dispatcher from Seattle, was one of three strangers Beulah Cooper, 70, welcomed into her home.  Burke told the audience she has returned to Gander twice since that day, maintaining close ties with Cooper.

Burke recalled feeling "tired, scared" and breaking down crying when Cooper offered her shelter.

"[Beulah] reminded me that kindness and humanity can light even the coldest, darkest night."

'Light in the midst of darkness'

The province's premier, Kathy Dunderdale, said the day helped further define the friendship between Canada and the U.S.

"What binds us are the values of liberty and justice," said Dunderdale, who exalted town residents for doing what most people in her province consider "second nature."

"[Gander was] a beacon of light in the dark … [residents] showed the way to hope and humanity in a time of death and despair."

Federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews also thanked the people of the area for the example they set: "Places like Gander … galvanized our resolve to be light in the midst of darkness."

And in a statement released later Sunday, Defence Minister Peter MacKay asked Canadians to remember not just those who lost their lives in the attacks, but also " those who sacrificed in the years since."   "Canada's soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen faced the threats that challenged the security of our nation, accepted the fears of their compatriots, marched to the front lines of one of the most dangerous places on Earth and fought to defend the ideals and values that shaped Canada and made this country great. … On behalf of all Canadians, I thank the members of the Canadian Forces for their service, sacrifice and selflessness."

In between speeches, the white-clad Gander Academy Grade 2 sang songs. The three-hour ceremony wrapped up with The Last Post.

'Incredible acts of courage'

Elsewhere, Prime Minister Stephen Harper attended the Ground Zero ceremonies in the U.S. after formally designating Sept. 11 a national day of service, honouring both the victims and the Canadian communities who aided stranded travellers 10 years ago.

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Beulah Cooper, left, from Gander, and Monica Burke, from Seattle, met when dozens of planes were diverted to Gander after the 9/11 attacks. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

"While Canadians share in the grief of all those mourning loved ones lost, we also honour the incredible acts of courage, sacrifice and kindness by those who served in the rescue efforts," Harper said in statement released Sunday.

The prime minister said Canada would stand with its allies to "help ensure such a tragedy never happens again."

"Terrorism will not undermine our way of life … We will steadfastly defend, protect and promote our democratic values and principles, the very foundation of our free and prosperous society."

Harper met with family members of some of Canada's 24 New York 9/11 victims on Saturday night. On Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama sent a letter to Harper thanking all Canadians for their support during that difficult time.

"We remember with gratitude and affection how the people of Canada offered us the comfort of friendship and extraordinary assistance that day and in the following days by opening their airports, homes and hearts to us," Obama wrote.

Plaque for Halifax airport

Several other communities across Canada had unexpected visitors  when U.S. air space was shut down to all but military aircraft, with about 200 flights diverted to Canadian airports. Many flights also ended up in Moncton, N.B., and in Halifax, where 8,000 extra passengers showed up.

U.S. Consul-General Anton Smith presented a plaque to Halifax airport managers early Sunday to thank employees and residents for their aid.

In Ottawa, an open-air concert "of hope and remembrance" began precisely at 8:46 a.m., the time when the first plane hit the World Trade Centre.

Jean Chrétien, who was prime minister when the attacks occurred, attended the Parliament Hill event along with several hundred others.

After the concert, Chrétien recalled how tens of thousands of Canadians turned out on Parliament Hill to express their solidarity with Americans in the days after the terror attacks.

"We had 100,000 people on the Hill," he recalled "And the greatest moment, when I asked for three minutes of silence, it was probably the three minutes the most moving of my life to not hear a noise for three minutes. People praying in their own faith for the American people."

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U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Jacobson looks at a piece of the World Trade Center, one of two girders from the Center which will remain at Gander's aviation museum. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

With files from The Canadian Press