Royalty and dignitaries joined British and American mourners Wednesday at St. Paul’s Cathedral to remember those who died in last year’s attacks on the United States. Three thousand white rose petals - symbols of those who died on Sept. 11, 2001 - cascaded down from the cathedral’s soaring dome onto a tattered British flag recently recovered from the rubble at Ground Zero in New York.
The memorial, held at the site of a more spontaneous outpouring of sorrow three days after the Sept. 11 attacks last year, was attended by some 600 family members and friends of the 67 British victims of the tragedy.
Prince Charles, his youngest son, Prince Harry, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the American ambassador to Britain observed a solemn ceremony that echoed the international grief resulting from the attacks, and the spirit of brotherhood that has joined the United States and Britain as the leading prosecutors of the war on terrorism.
The bishop of London, the Rev. Richard Chartres, recalled the “sense of unity and respect between our two cities and countries” that has grown since Sept. 11.
The victims’ families entered the cathedral from the crypts underneath the main chapel’s floor, a move that reflected their desire to mourn in private. A grave-faced and gray-suited Prince Charles followed Chartres up the aisle to the church altar, where a British Union Jack flag — soiled and torn after its recovery from under tons of wreckage — was placed in memory of the victims.
The flag’s owner is not known, but it is assumed that it belonged to one of the dozens of Britons working in the World Trade Center towers in New York City.
At a ceremony earlier in the day outside the American Embassy in London, Lt. Frank Dwyer of the New York Police Department invoked the words of Britain’s greatest wartime leader, Winston Churchill, when he returned the flag to Britain, saying that it represented those “who stood with us for what was truly our darkest hour.”
A NATION REMEMBERS
While Britain’s members of parliament and ministers stood with their heads bowed at St. Paul’s Cathedral, elsewhere in the country millions paused to remember the attacks at the very moment the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center. At Marks & Spencer, one of the country’s largest retailers, staff and shoppers alike marked 1:46 p.m. local time, or 8:46 a.m. in New York, when American Airlines Flight 11 was crashed into the North Tower. Inside St. Paul’s, the congregation stood in silence. Three-foot-tall white candles were lit to coincide with the impacts of the American and United Airlines flights into the towers.
Chartres told those gathered that 9/11 “enhanced awareness of the interconnectedness of the world.”
“9/11 brought us face to face with the reality of the world,” he said. “This solidarity can turn compassion into energy capable of overcoming indifference and downright evil,” he said of the special bond between British and American victims of the attacks.
Similar to the St. Paul’s ceremony held three days after the attacks on Sept. 14, 2001, the memorial opened with the American National Anthem and closed with God Save the Queen.
FOCAL POINT FOR MOURNERS
Earlier Wednesday, under the watchful eye of police sharpshooters perched on buildings surrounding London’s Grosvenor Square, a crowd of 400 gathered opposite the U.S. Embassy in a garden that became a focal point for mourners in the British capital a year ago.
“We gather in solidarity, united in our determination to wipe terrorism from the face of earth,” American Ambassador William Farish told mourners and dignitaries who included Britain’s top law enforcement officer, Home Secretary David Blunkett.
Opposite the U.S. Embassy, Grosvenor Square features memorials to former American presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower. During World War II, the area was the nerve center of the American forces in Britain.
Lt. Dwyer, the New York Police officer, presented Blunkett with the British flag, noting it was “recovered by hand from Ground Zero, a symbol of the endurance and strength of the British people. This flag belongs back on this land.”
Dwyer, who spent a year as a police scholar at Britain’s Cambridge University in 2000, returned to duty in New York shortly before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Building on the symbolism of the morning memorial, the midday service at St. Paul’s took place at a historic gathering place for Americans in Britain. There is an American chapel at the east end of the cathedral’s apse, where the 28,000 Americans stationed in the United Kingdom who lost their lives in World War II are remembered in a tome marking their sacrifice. Insignia in stained glass above the American Memorial Chapel represents the American states and the U.S. armed forces. The church serves as a gathering point for the U.S. community every Thanksgiving.
In the memorial Wednesday, Chartres urged the friends and relatives of victims in Britain and the United States to look to the future. “We can remember them and only that they have gone, or we can cherish their memory and let it live on. We can cry and close our mind, be empty and turn our back. Or we can do what they would want, open our eyes, love and go on.”
Preston Mendenhall is MSNBC’s international editor.