LONG BEACH, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — Thousands on Saturday returned to Point Lookout where they watched the attacks on the Twin Towers unfold two decades ago.

When the towers were struck, stunned Long Islanders spontaneously gathered at the shore. They had a crystal-clear view of the unthinkable, CBS2’s Carolyn Gusoff reported.

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They’ve returned to the beach every year for the last 20 years for a ceremony at sunrise to honor the lives lost.

(credit: CBS2)

Last year’s service was held in the parking lot to maintain social distancing. But this year, hundreds of mourners were back on the sand.

Gusoff said this year’s crowd was the largest she’s seen at the annual ceremony.

Many of the relatives of Nassau County’s 300 victims attended the service.

At the annual pilgrimage, larger crowds spoke of deeper wounds. It’s no easier after 20 years, and in fact, many say it’s harder to face the passage of so much time without loved ones.

Deanine Nagengast lost her father, a broadcast engineer.

“I always struggle with, I can’t believe that there’s that much evil that exists in the world,” Nagengast said.

James Kelly was among the 658 Cantor Fitzgerald workers who perished.

“I feel his loss because he was quite a person, and he loved life,” said James’ father, Joe Kelly.

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“I think you have to hold on to the people you have left. You have today,” one woman said.

“It brings back a lot of sad memories. It’s a tough day for everybody,” said Barbara McNamara, a docent at the 9/11 Memorial.

The memorial includes a Remembrance Wall for loved ones to write messages honoring the 497 Long Island residents who lost their lives.

After the service, mourners walk the shore and cast flowers into the ocean.

“Sad and I think because it’s in the public, and you’re grieving with a nation, really, not just on your own. So that makes it difficult because, at this time of the year, there’s constant reminders of what happened and the visuals are very hard to see, knowing that you lost a loved one. It’s a very difficult time,” Nagengast said.

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“9/11 was 20 years ago, but the loss that happened that day, it continues for everybody… the people who were there are still passing away,” said Hempstead Town Supervisor Don Clavin.

“We need to be a country of peace and love and harmony, and that we need to recognize the importance of all the people that serve our country and that do keep us safe. I think that we’ve lost that over time, I really do… Just because it’s been 20 years, it doesn’t mean that we should forget,” said Ashley Antonacci-Martini.

Adding to the heartache, the fact that 3,000 first responders and volunteers have now died of 9/11-related illnesses, surpassing the death toll that day.

“Those poor people that went to work, all they did was go to work, and those firemen and police knew what they were walking into and they knew they weren’t going to walk out,” said Todd Gleason, a Ground Zero crane operator.

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Twenty years later and still no sense to it, but a reaffirmation of the good that comes from community and what it is to be an American.

Carolyn Gusoff