COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - A day of unity and remembrance was marked Friday by events around the country on the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
In Columbia, service members, council members and others gathered at city hall to remember those who died that day. It was the fourth annual 9/11 remembrance ceremony in Columbia. Speakers included Mayor Bob Coble and members of the Fort Jackson command staff.
The central theme was to thank those who serve the American people every day.
"We want to pay respect to those who lost their lives and we also want to pay respect to these first responders who work everyday to do whatever they can to provide a better life for each one of us," said Army Maj. Gen. George Goldsmith (Ret.).
One South Carolina resident will never forget September 11. George Dobson helped rescue victims from the World Trade Center.
He was living in Pennsylvania then, but Dobson went to New York after the attacks to help with the rescue and recovery. Not long after arriving, Dobson watched tower seven collapse.
Along with his memories, Dobson has financial papers from the World Trade Center as morbid souvenirs.
"I've never seen so many strangers in my life come together in one time to be one unit," he said.
Dobson now suffers from lung problems from exposure to asbestos and debris, but he says he has no regrets responding to the tragedy.
President Barack Obama vowed the United States "will never falter" in the pursuit of al-Qaida as he marked the eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks by placing a wreath at the site of the attack on the Pentagon.
Skies were gray Friday in New York City, at the Pentagon in Washington and at a crash site in a Pennsylvania field, where now-familiar ceremonies honored the nearly 3,000 people who were lost.
"Let us renew our resolve against those who perpetrated this barbaric act and who plot against us still," Obama said in Washington under rainy skies at the memorial to the victims. "In defense of our nation, we will never waver."
Obama has distanced himself from many of the anti-terror policies of former President George W. Bush, but his remarks recalled Bush's speech to Congress in the immediate aftermath of the attacks: "We will not tire, we will not falter and we will not fail."
Friday was also the first time the anniversary was observed as a national day of service, following an order signed this year by Obama.
"From this day forward, we will safeguard the memories of those who died by rekindling the spirit of service that lit our city with hope and helped keep us strong," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a ceremony in lower Manhattan.
At a plaza adjacent to ground zero in New York City, families gathered, with umbrellas whipping inside out, while the names of the Trade Center victims were read, pausing for moments of silence at the minutes the jetliners crashed into the towers and the buildings fell.
People involved in volunteer work across the United States joined relatives of victims to read the names of those lost in the twin towers.
One reader represented a group called New York Says Thank You, which sends volunteers from New York City each year on the attacks anniversary to help rebuild communities around the country affected by disasters as a way to send thanks for the help that came to New York City after Sept. 11.
Other readers were from local soup kitchens, advocacy groups and well-known service organizations including the American Red Cross and the United Way.
As has become tradition, relatives who read names called out greetings and messages of love to the lost.
"We miss you; life will never be the same without you. This is not the rain," said Vladimir Boyarsky, whose son, Gennady Boyarsky, was killed. "This is the tears."
Relatives and friends of victims were allowed Friday to visit the plaza for the Sept. 11 memorial that is under construction. It is expected to be partially complete and open for the 10th anniversary.
Vice President Joe Biden laid flowers at the memorial at the site of the World Trade Center attack. Before he spoke, Biden joined families who were laying flowers in a reflecting pool on the site where the towers once stood.
In Washington, Obama and first lady Michelle Obama began the day observing a moment of silence on the South Lawn of the White House at precisely 8:46 a.m., the moment the first jetliner struck the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Nearly 200 White House staffers - from chief of staff Rahm Emanuel to kitchen workers - gathered under the heavy downpour. Moments before the president and first lady stepped outside, the rain subsided and held off as they placed their hands over their hearts and bowed their heads.
After leaving the Pentagon, the president and first lady toured a Habitat for Humanity housing development in Washington and pitched in by painting a living room.
Obama called for Americans to "renew our common purpose. Let us remember how we came together as one nation, as one people, as Americans, united not only in our grief, but in our resolve to stand with one another, to stand up for the country we all love.
Meanwhile, the Coast Guard conducted a training exercise in the Potomac River near the Pentagon amid the commemorations, sparking confusion that scrambled FBI agents and led the nearest airport to briefly ground flights.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Obama was a 40-year-old Illinois state senator. Like his countrymen, he was jarred by what he described as "nightmare images" of destruction and grief that filled the TV that day.
Within days, he issued a statement about what the U.S. should do. Beyond the immediate needs to improve security and dismantle "organizations of destruction," Obama wrote, was the more difficult job of "understanding the sources of such madness." He wrote of "a fundamental absence of empathy on the part of the attackers," of "embittered children" around the world, of the seeds of discontent sown in poverty, ignorance and despair.
Nuanced musings of an obscure state senator, the statement never even made the big Chicago daily newspapers.
Americans were listening instead to President George W. Bush, shouting into a megaphone at Ground Zero. To weary rescue workers and a sorrowing nation, Bush declared: "The world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon."
Eight years later, public sentiment toward U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is souring as combat deaths grow and questions persist about flawed Afghan elections. The drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq is moving forward, but at a slower pace than envisioned by candidate Obama. Defense Secretary Robert Gates speaks of "a certain war-weariness on the part of the American people."
Obama's goal of shutting the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba within a year is bogged down in case-by-case complexities.
The phrase "war on terror" has fallen out of favor: Obama avoids using it, he says, to keep from offending Muslims.
Keeping Americans safe, the president says, is "the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning; it's the last thing that I think about when I go to sleep at night."
Bush used to say the same thing.
Bush also pledged to "rid the world of evil" and framed the worst act of terrorism on American soil with a black-and-white clarity that belied the complex challenges that lay ahead.
Obama, more discriminating in his speech, has struggled to craft a clear message as he faces difficult decisions about how best to protect Americans and amid growing doubts about his ability to do so.
An AP-GfK poll released this week finds the president's approval ratings for his handling of Afghanistan and Iraq slipping, and declining approval, as well, for his efforts to combat terrorism.
In a letter sent Thursday to intelligence officials, CIA Director Leon Panetta recommitted the spy agency to the fight against al Qaida and its sympathizers. "There is no higher priority and no greater focus," he wrote. "No life lost in this attack or battle shall be lost in vain."
Associated Press writers Verena Dobnik in New York, Nancy Benac in Washington and Dan Nephin in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.