With a tiny Stars and Stripes in one hand and a white bullhorn in the other, President Bush stood atop a mound of rubble in the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center on Friday and promised cheering rescue workers that America will respond vigorously to the nation’s deadliest terrorist attack.
His hoarse voice nearly drowned out by chants of “USA! USA! USA!” from firefighters and search crews coated with grime and dust, the president shouted in reply:
“I can you hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”
The heartfelt exchange punctuated an emotional tour of the devastated financial center by Bush, whose walk past the wreckage seemed to revitalize thousands of workers who paused in their relentless search for survivors to attend an impromptu patriotic rally.
“Don’t let ‘em get away with it!” one worker shouted at the president, triggering an even louder chant of “USA! USA!” from firefighters and police officers, ironworkers and demolition men, searchers and rescuers and swarms of other weary volunteers.
Bush later said he was staggered by what he had seen.
“I’m shocked at the size of the devastation,” he said. “It’s hard to describe what it’s like to see the gnarled steel and broken glass and twisted buildings silhouetted against the smoke. I said that this was the first act of war on America in the 21st century, and I was right, particularly having seen the scene.”
Asked about a possible military response, Bush said: “I’m satisfied that our planning for possible future actions is going on course.” And does he believe he knows who ordered the attacks? “We know we got a suspect,” Bush said. He did not mention Osama bin Laden, whom administration officials have described as the primary suspect.
On a day when he attended a solemn national prayer service in Washington, D.C., and received a unanimous vote of support from the Senate, Bush seemed energized by his conversations with firefighters, police officers and federal emergency workers.
“I appreciate what you’re doing,” the president repeated to several firefighters whom he greeted in the gloomy shadows beside the toppled skyscrapers.
Acrid smoke from the wreckage fouled the air, and a steady rain had turned the dust and rubble into a gray quicksand. But Bush seemed engaged and attentive. He pursed his lips and listened intently as firefighters and rescue workers described their mission.
The Secret Service opposed the visit, citing security concerns, according to a White House official. But Bush decided Wednesday that he wanted to go.
New York voted overwhelmingly Democratic in the 2000 presidential election, but Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who accompanied Bush, said afterward: “I would bet this is the first time he’s bonded with New York. That’s going to be good for him, and it’s going to be good for us.”
Bush arrived in a city still fighting to overcome Tuesday’s disaster. A swath of lower Manhattan that had been sealed off since then was reopened Friday, and more stores and restaurants in the area were back in business. But Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, in a morning news conference, expressed deep concern over the blow to businesses and jobs--in addition to the human toll of the attacks.
The tally stood Friday at 184 dead and about 4,300 injured, including rescue workers. Officials said 57 bodies had been identified, with 13 other victims identified by partial remains. Giuliani has said 4,763 people have been reported missing.
Bush’s visit was preceded by a brief helicopter tour of the blasted-out twin towers area. The president arrived from Washington aboard Air Force One, described by administration officials as a possible terrorist target during Tuesday’s hijackings and attacks. Both Air Force One and the president’s Marine One helicopter were escorted by fighter jets Friday.
Search and rescue teams had endured a dispiriting day before Bush’s midafternoon arrival. A morning downpour made combing through the debris even more difficult and treacherous, and there were no signs of survivors. An overnight report that 10 police officers were still alive beneath a collapsed building proved to be a hoax, enraging and deflating the search crews.
But late in the afternoon, the sun broke through the pall of smoke, and Bush emerged at the ragged edge of the debris field that firefighters call “The Pit.” The workers, who have grown accustomed to spontaneous applause from passersby since Tuesday’s attacks, let out a deafening chant of “USA!” Many waved tiny American flags. Bush, dressed in a tan shirt and khaki jacket, lifted a bullhorn and shouted: “The nation sends its love and compassion to everybody who’s here. Thank you for your hard work. Thank you for making the nation proud. And may God bless America.”
Later, firefighters and police officers said they appreciated Bush’s gestures and words. But some said they regretted that the presidential visit had interrupted their search and rescue work. About 360 firefighters and police officers who responded to the first attack Tuesday morning on the World Trade Center are missing.
“It’s a good thing he’s here,” said Bob Rybickie, a member of a “bucket brigade” removing debris. “But we gotta get moving.”
Volunteer firefighter Kevin Madigan was also eager to get back to work. But he said it was important for Bush to see the massive extent of the destruction that has left so many dead or missing. “Let him see what it’s like. He needs to know,” he said.
Bush was accompanied by Giuliani and New York Gov. George Pataki, both Republicans. At one point during the half-day visit, the president draped one arm around the mayor and another around the governor.
New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, who also was with the president, said rescue workers appreciated the visit. “A couple of guys, they were crying. And they were thanking him for coming. It’s great he’s here. It’s a good morale booster for the troops.”
In a counterpoint to the openly expressed desire by most rescue workers for a decisive military response, several thousand people gathered for an antiwar vigil at a makeshift memorial at Union Square in Manhattan on Friday night. Organizers distributed fliers with a pacifist message:
“Mourn the Victims. Stand for Peace. Islam is Not the Enemy. War is Not the Answer.”
People lighted candles and wrote messages in chalk on the stone plaza. “Hate doesn’t win,” one read.
The vigil was held next to a wall decorated with photos of missing people and messages of condolence. The crowd, which grew through the night and spilled over the boundaries of the square, sang “We Shall Overcome,” “Amazing Grace” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Several people raised a banner that read, “NYC Wants Justice, Not Revenge.”
Earlier, the mayor and police commissioner expressed dismay at several incidents that seemed to pierce an atmosphere of shared commitment and caring. They threatened to prosecute anyone caught making bomb threats--more than 100 false threats nearly paralyzed the city Thursday--and to arrest anyone breaking through National Guard security lines around the disaster site.
Kerik said a man was arrested Thursday on suspicion of stealing watches from a damaged jewelry store in the area, and other people were caught posing as volunteers while attempting to steal items at the disaster site.
Kerik was particularly outraged by a woman who told rescuers Thursday night that she had spoken to her husband, a police officer, on a cell phone while he was trapped with nine fellow officers in a sub-basement. Police determined that her story was false, but only after rescue workers dug frantically to rescue the officers.
“You have to remember there are firefighters and cops on those lines who have family members in there, they have colleagues, their partners,” Kerik said. “They are very emotional about what they’re doing. . . . This is just going to get somebody hurt.’
Times staff writers Matea Gold, Jeffrey Gettleman, John J.Goldman and Geraldine Baum contributed to this story.