For many of the family members and friends--clinging to photographs of the people they lost Sept. 11--this was the first time they had seen the destruction firsthand, without the safe distance of television.
While some people had toured the site in the last few weeks, Sunday's interfaith service marked the first time all the families and friends of the more than 4,000 victims were allowed there.
"I had no idea [the site] was so enormous," said Sarah Johansen, 23, whose best friend worked for the bond-trading firm Cantor Fitzgerald. "There was always a part of me that wondered if Karen was still alive, hidden somewhere. Now, that's gone. She's gone."
By 11 a.m., three hours before the memorial service was set to begin, the subways were packed with mourners and the roads filled with limousines, all heading to the same place.
The crisp autumn air was filled with the acrid scent of the fire that has burned in lower Manhattan since the twin towers collapsed. Although water was sprayed on smoldering spots in the wreckage before the service, a smoky cloud hung over the crowd.
The site was strangely quiet, as rescue workers and demolition crews took a break for only the second time in nearly seven weeks since the attack. The first was for a moment of silence on Oct. 11 at 8:48 a.m.--one month to the minute after the first hijacked plane struck the trade center's north tower.
Sunday, as the mourners were escorted to their seats, the air was filled only with the sound of muffled sobs and the murmur of condolences.
"For a large number of families, the idea of being at the site was very important," said Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. "It was important to them to pray, and to feel a connection to the people they lost."
Workers had set up 5,000 plastic chairs, turning them to face the devastation, but that was not nearly enough. Thousands more people streamed into the area, desperate for a seat. They stood dozens deep and spilled over several blocks.
"I'm sorry ma'am, you can't stand here," a New York police officer politely told an elderly woman who stood in the middle of an aisle. "There are no more seats. You're going to have to stand in the back."
He pointed to a spot nearly a block away.
The woman looked at the officer, tears leaving tracks down her cheeks.
"Please, please, this is my son's grave," she said. "I have nowhere else to pray. I have to pray here."
The officer stared at the woman, then escorted her to a seat near the stage. Fingering rosary beads, she smiled in thanks and began to whisper, "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee . . ."
Nearby, flowers lined the stage with rich tones of gold and purple. Mourners walked by, some stopping to sniff a blossom or pluck out a flower to put in a lapel.
"Those flowers look so fresh and alive, don't they?" asked Denise Blaney, 36. "It's strange to see something so alive here. Everything's so dead."
Waiting for the service to begin, strangers sitting in the rows began to introduce themselves and fondly recalled stories. But few people spoke of their loved ones in the past tense.
"Here's a picture of Dan a couple years ago, when we were in the Bahamas. Do you remember how he loves the sun?"
"Here's Janice's wedding photo. Isn't she beautiful?"
Bond traders and police officers. Attorneys and waiters. People from all walks of life sat hip to hip, sharing memories and tissues.
When the service began, they stood in unison as reflections were offered from across the religious spectrum--Christian, Jewish, Muslim. They listened to musical tributes, including a rendition of "Ave Maria" by opera star Andrea Bocelli, and "Let Us Love in Peace" performed on piano by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Occasionally, mourners were overcome by emotion. One woman near the stage fainted. Another, sobbing too hard to walk, had to be carried away by security.
"They were innocent and they were brutally, viciously, unjustly taken from us," said Cardinal Edward Egan, the leader of New York's Roman Catholic archdiocese. "We are in mourning, Lord, we have hardly any tears left to shed."
Some of the mourners said they had yet to find solace.
"I thought I would get a sense of peace coming here," said Millicent Robinson, whose husband worked for the investment firm Marsh & McLennan. "I was so wrong. It was a beautiful service, but all I feel is sadness and anger."
As the memorial ended, the sun slid behind the shells of the buildings and a cold wind chilled the crowd. Many families said they were headed to Pier 94, where the city was expected to present them with wooden urns containing ash from the World Trade Center site.
Considering the remains of only 500 people have been identified--and thousands of people remain missing--the urn will be the only remnant many people will have.
"At least it's something," Johansen said. "No one wanted to have a funeral with an empty coffin."