Obama at ground zero: President lays wreath for 9/11 victims
After meeting with firefighters, police and some of the families who lost relatives in the 9/11 terrorism attacks, President Obama on Thursday placed a wreath at the site of the World Trade Center during a trip designed to comfort New Yorkers and remind the nation that his administration had fulfilled the promise to bring Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted terrorist, to justice.
Obama, whose approval rating bumped upward after Bin Laden was killed in Sunday’s raid in Pakistan, also met with relatives of some of those killed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when commercial planes struck the office towers in Lower Manhattan. It is Obama’s first visit to the site since becoming president, though he went there as a candidate.
“What happened on Sunday, because of the courage of our military and the outstanding work of our intelligence, sent a message around the world, but also sent a message here back home that when we say we will never forget, we mean what we say,” Obama said during the day.
Head bowed, flanked by uniformed officers, Obama observed a moment of silent meditation at the site before moving to hug some of the relatives of those who died in the attacks. Obama also spoke briefly with top politicians including the governor, senators and the mayor of New York.
Obama’s wreath was red roses with some white and purplish-blue flowers mixed in. It was supplied by a shop that was located on the ground floor of 4 World Trade Center on the day of the attack, according to the White House.
The wreath was placed on a spot that sits in the shadow of the famous Survivor Tree within a grove of other trees. The callery pear survived the attacks, was moved off the site but was returned. Buildings in various states of construction surround the plaza. To one side is a deep empty square where the South Tower used to stand. When construction is completed, that square and another, where the North Tower used to be, will be filled with water to create reflecting pools.
After the ceremony, the president met privately with approximately 60 9/11 family members, according to the White House. He then left New York for Washington.
Obama’s was a mission in New York was one of commemoration and compassion while calling attention to the death of the man whose Al Qaeda group was responsible for the worst terrorist attacks in the United States. Almost 3,000 people died on that morning that marked the beginning of an era that included heightened security at home and invasions abroad.
The president landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport at 10:39 a.m. EDT and was greeted by a crowd on the tarmac. He traveled by helicopter to Wall Street, where he arrived shortly after 11 a.m. Two fire trucks and two presidential limos were parked there. Former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who was in office when the attacks took place, was there as well.
President Obama first visited the “Pride of Midtown” Firehouse, Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9. The firehouse lost 15 on 9/11 — an entire shift and more than any other New York firehouse. The firefighters killed that day had 28 children. Photographs of the dead line the wall, accompanied by messages from their families.
“This is a symbolic site of the extraordinary sacrifice that was made on that terrible day almost 10 years ago. Obviously, we can’t bring back your friends that were lost, and I know that each and every one of you not only grieve for them, but have also over the last 10 years dealt with their family, their children, trying to give them comfort, trying to give them support,” Obama said.
He went on to praise those who had carried out the raid on Bin Laden and coupled that with a call for the type of bipartisan unity that proves that America can get things done.
Obama said the raid showed “our commitment to making sure that justice is done, is something that transcended politics, transcended party. It didn’t matter which administration was in, it didn’t matter who was in charge, we were going to make sure that the perpetrators of that horrible act — that they received justice,” Obama said.
The president went on to thank the firefighters “from the bottom of my heart and on behalf of the American people for the sacrifices that you make every single day. And I just want to let you know that you’re always going to have a president and an administration who’s got your back the way you’ve got the backs of the people of New York over these last many years,” he said.
The president then visited the First Precinct police station in lower Manhattan, which covers the World Trade Center area. Officers from the precinct were the first on the scene after the attacks. Obama again sounded his themes of consolation and completion.
“I am here basically to shake your hand and say how proud I am of all of you,” Obama said, then returned to praise for the raid on Bin Laden. “We did what we said we were going to do.”
En route to New York, press secretary Jay Carney said the visit was designed to be a cathartic moment.
“The president believes it’s appropriate and fitting to travel to New York this week in the wake of the successful mission to bring Osama bin Laden to justice in order to recognize the terrible loss that New York suffered on 9/11 and to acknowledge the burden that families of the victims and the loved ones of the victims have been carrying with them since 9/11, almost 10 years,” Carney told reporters on Air Force One. It is “an effort to perhaps help New Yorkers and Americans everywhere to achieve a sense of closure.”
Hours before the president’s arrival at the site known as ground zero, the area was choked with police, tourists and fans waving American flags, chanting, “Obama got Osama!” Irritated commuters pushed through the crowds.
“I think it’s a great thing for America but also a great thing for all free nations,” said Mark Harrington, a tourist from Adelaide, Australia, as he took pictures of a small group of locals clad in red, white and blue top hats and coats, shouting, “God bless America” and “God bless the Navy SEALs” and sentiments such as, “It shows that we’ll track you down, no matter where you hide. It may take 10 years, but we’ll get you.”
Behind him, across a narrow street lined with metal security gates erected by police, cranes loomed hundreds of feet into the sky from the hole where the World Trade Center once stood. Developers are rushing to make progress at the site, which remains a massive construction zone, before the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
The site was a scene of tragedy but also marked a high point of the presidency of George W. Bush, when he stood amid the rubble, calling for national unity and promising the world that the United States would bring Bin Laden to justice for the destruction and the deaths of nearly 3,000 people in New York. Obama had invited Bush to appear with him in New York, but the former president, who tries to keep out of the limelight, begged off.
New York Sen. Charles Schumer said the president’s visit was an important way of helping the relatives, many of whom are bitter about the decision to bury Bin Laden at sea and some of the plans for the memorial museum that include unidentified remains, such as bone chips.
“It says to the families who lost loved ones we will never ever forget you,” Schumer said.
Deanne Mcdonald of Brooklyn agreed. She said she had come to the area outside ground zero early Thursday to show her support for Obama and the families.
“The lost souls ... are rejoicing in heaven,” she said of the victims. “They are so happy that mission was accomplished.”
That feeling of elation has been a constant thread throughout political discussions since Obama announced in a Sunday night speech to the nation that Bin Laden had been killed in a raid by U.S. forces. Polls also show that Americans credit the military and intelligence communities for the success of the raid.
Obama has gained, according to all polls, though the degree of improved approval varies. Polls showed that Americans saw Obama as a good leader and effective on national security issues, though there were still sizable worries about the economy and related economic issues. Most observers had expected Obama to receive a bump in popularity, but it was unclear how long it would last as the 2012 presidential cycle heated up.
Obama came to New York after deciding not to release photographs of Bin Laden after he was shot.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Al Qaeda terrorists hijacked jets and flew two of them into the World Trade Center’s twin towers. A third plane slammed into the Pentagon. Officials believe a fourth plane had been heading for Washington when passengers fought to reclaim the craft and it crashed in Pennsylvania.
In a companion move, Vice President Joe Biden placed a wreath at the Pentagon on Thursday.
Susman reported from New York and Muskal from Los Angeles.
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