The void at Ground Zero belonged most of all to the parents and grandparents of the dead on Saturday.
By Matt Wells
In New York
Bereaved children are called orphans, and husbands become widowers, but "there is no name for a parent who loses a child, for there are no words to describe this pain," said New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, at the start of the commemoration.
Many of the 9/11 victims were firefighters
Those words rang true for so many who were here, eyes brimming with constant tears.
Jean Coleman said it had been the morning's most telling observation: "We lost two sons... and sons, you don't replace. There is no title."
The dignified format followed last year's pattern, although then it was the children, who - ascending to the microphone in pairs while sombre laments played in the background - read the entire list of those lost during the 9/11 attacks.
The pathos was greater 12 months ago, but the emotion seemed more unbearable for the adults, many of whom accidentally skipped and mispronounced names in their rising grief. All of the 200 readers finished their segment of the roll call with the name of their own relative, often holding up a photograph as they spoke.
The personal sign-offs ranged from the achingly sentimental ("I love you Kenny-Wenny") to the stoically patriotic ("God Bless America").
Although it appears that fewer families came this year, time seems to have stood still for many of these people: the pain still too raw and too public, ever to process perhaps.
Rich Lloret was one of the fire-fighters called down to the burning towers that day. He told me the smaller turnout at Saturday's commemoration was disturbing: "It's important that people just come here to remember. That's how we fire-fighters feel. It's a decent number here today, but more should have come."
If the ceremony was different from before, the same can be said of the context in which this anniversary was taking place.
It being a Saturday, offices were closed anyway, and routines were not interrupted.
Just a few blocks north of Ground Zero, shoppers bustled along Canal Street like any normal weekend.
Fewer people went this year
The world of course has changed too.
This week, New Yorkers were still digesting the recent flurry of pre-emptive 9/11 images from the Republican National Convention, and the senseless killings in Beslan, Russia, had a strong resonance here, especially among the 11 September widows I have spoken to over the last few days.
For some family members leaving the commemoration, it was all too much.
"You can't get back to yourself. You wake up every morning and it's still there," said Julia Epps, whose lost her brother. Like hundreds of other relatives, she wore a white t-shirt emblazoned with a smiling portrait.
"The day is everywhere, in the movies and the sitcoms. I'm already too angry about other things to worry how politicians are using it. If I think about it I'll explode," said Julia, adding: "What does hurt me, is seeing those boys dying in Iraq."
For most, the day was primarily about cherishing memories.
"I thought they did a beautiful job here once again," said John Koecheler, whose father Gary, worked in Tower Two: "You're not supposed to go before your parents, but it happened to so many that day."
"I know that my grandmother, who lives in Minnesota, is still devastated that she lost her first-born. It's a difficult day every day as we try and find peace in the world. My father was my role-model, and my best friend," he added, dissolving into tears.
As with last year, thousands of relatives made their way slowly down a ramp onto the bottom of the site, to place flowers in and around two square pools that represent the footprints of the twin towers.
Ground Zero has changed from a year ago, although no re-building has taken place.
The commuter rail station that linked New Jersey to New York's financial heart, is open again, and the foundation stone of the Freedom Tower is in place.
Action and strife
Last year it was essentially an organised building site, but this year, hundreds of well-wishers were able to watch the commemoration at a distance, staring through the mesh of a three-metre metal fence.
Loudspeakers carried the names of the dead around the cavernous space, and the sounds of heavy church bells carried across the downtown area.
A handful of people occupying the sidewalk on the edge of Ground Zero had come to not only pay their respects, but also to demonstrate.
"People should know - and hardly anyone seems to - that 30,000 Iraqi civilians have also died, and that this government is planning to declare war on Iran, and Syria," said Ann Roos, who was standing with a placard which read: "No more lives, for George Bush's lies."
Some passers-by remonstrated angrily with her, but the Republican Party had used the event to score political points, so why shouldn't she also exercise that right?
"This is my America too, this is my country. I've just gotten support from a woman whose brother died here," she added.
The fact that so much political action and strife has sprung directly from the destruction that took place in New York that day, is one of those things that mourning relatives know they will never get away from.
"Your life has changed forever, and we'll never get it back to where it was. I feel sorrow for all the other families, and I just thank God that we've made it through the third year," said Julia Epps.