The plot of land that has been known for a decade as "the pile," "the pit" and "Ground Zero" opened to the public for the first time since that terrible morning in 2001, transformed into a memorial consisting of two serene reflecting pools ringed by the engraved names of the nearly 3,000 souls lost.
The 9/11 memorial plaza opened its gates at 10 a.m. Monday under tight security. Visitors were allowed to walk among hundreds of white oak trees on the 3.2-hectare site and gaze at the water where the World Trade Center's twin towers stood.
They were also able to run their fingertips over the etched-in-bronze names of the 2,977 people killed in the terrorist attacks in New York, at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, as well as the six slain during the bombing of the trade centre in 1993.
The memorial plaza opened to the families of the victims for the first time on Sunday, the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
Sufia Simjee of Baltimore travelled to New York City to mourn her cousin, Nasima H. Simjee, a financial analyst killed on Sept. 11.
She said family members never received Nasima's remains; now, at least, they have a place to leave flowers.
"It gives us a place to honour her," she said.
Although thousands of construction workers have come and gone from the site over the years, Monday marks the first time that ordinary Americans without a badge, a press pass or a hard hat were able to walk the grounds.
"It will do what the terrorists tried to prevent, which is we've created a place where, regardless of political stripes economic class, ethnicity, country of origin, people will be coming together, paying their respects at a place that's been transformed from one that was noted for such pain ... to a place of stunning beauty," memorial president Joe Daniels said last week as preparations were made for opening day.
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Admission is free, but access is being tightly controlled. Visitors need to obtain passes in advance, allowing them to enter only at a specified time. No more than about 1,500 people at a time were to be allowed inside.
Visitors have to empty their pockets, walk through a metal detector and send their handbags and backpacks through an X-ray machine.
Some 400,000 people have already reserved tickets for the coming months, Daniels said.
Much of the memorial complex is still under construction and will remain so for another year. The museum pavilion, a tilting structure that subtly evokes the sections of the trade center facade that remained standing after the towers fell, is scheduled to open on the 11th anniversary of the attacks.
The underground portion of the site won't open until 2012, meaning visitors will have to wait to see sights like the giant slurry wall, built to keep the Hudson River from flooding the trade centre's foundations, or the survivor's staircase that allowed so many people to flee to safety.
But seeing the names was enough for many of the families.
"It breaks me up," said David Martinez, who watched the attacks from his office in Manhattan, and later learned that he had lost a cousin and a brother — one in each tower.
Debra Burlingame, whose brother, Charles, was the pilot of American Airlines Flight 77, cried when she found his name, grouped with other crew members and passengers aboard the flight.
"These are all his crew," she said. "I know all their families. These passengers, I knew their families. These people are real people to me. It's very touching to see all these people here together."
The cost of the memorial and museum has been put at about $700 million, with an annual operating budget of $50 million to $60 million. The organizers have raised about $400 million from private donations and are seeking federal funds so that the memorial and the museum can be free of charge.
The centrepiece of the memorial is the two giant, square pits and reflecting pools that sit in the footprints of the two towers. The waterfalls cascading down the four walls of each fountain are the largest such fountains in North America.
'I think people will have that very special feeling of stepping on ground that the public has not in the last 10 years.' —Joe Daniels, memorial president
Skyscrapers are now pushing upward all around the plaza, and the roar of construction will be a constant at the site for some time.
One World Trade Center, the spire once called the Freedom Tower, is now 1,000 feet high and is well on its way to becoming the tallest building in the U.S. at 1,776 feet. The steel skeleton of the new 4 World Trade Center is 47 stories high and counting.
The memorial foundation has arranged for a separate entrance for relatives of the victims and plans to set aside certain days or hours where the plaza will be open only to firefighters, police officers and other emergency workers.
"I think people will have that very special feeling of stepping on ground that the public has not in the last 10 years," Daniels said.
As for the tight security, he said: "It's an inconvenience, but if you think about any site in the world, I think this is a place that people will expect to go through some security."