Obama Honors Victims of Bin Laden at Ground Zero
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
By MARK LANDLER
Published: May 5, 2011
President Obama laid a wreath of red, white, and blue flowers at ground zero on Thursday, honoring the nearly 3,000 people killed in the September 2001 terrorist attacks and marking the death of its perpetrator, Osama bin Laden.
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Now, in the wreath ceremony and in a series of meeting across Manhattan on Thursday, the president had a chance to meet one-to-one with the people whose lives were changed most deeply by Bin Laden — relatives of the victims, as well as firefighters and other rescue workers who lost comrades that morning.
“Obviously, you can’t bring back the friends you lost,” Mr. Obama said to the crew at a firehouse in midtown Manhattan that lost 15 men, an entire shift, at the World Trade Center. “What happened Sunday sent a message: When we say we will never forget, we mean what we say.”
It was Mr. Obama’s first visit as president to ground zero, a patch of lower Manhattan that Bin Laden turned into hallowed ground. After placing the wreath at the foot of a tree that had been wrested from the rubble, nursed back to health, and replanted on the site as a memorial, Mr. Obama stood silently, his head bowed and his hands clasped before him.
Behind him loomed one of the construction cranes that are building on the site of the World Trade Center, briefly stilled for the ceremony. Firefighters and police officers in formal dress uniform and relatives of the victims stood silently around him in the 8-acre memorial park on the site.
Later, Mr. Obama met privately with families of the victims inside a black storefront with a sign that read “9/11 Memorial Preview Site.”
“It’s important for the president of the United States, given the traumatic events that New York suffered on September 11, 2001, to return in the wake of the successful mission against Bin Laden,” the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, said to reporters on Air Force One. “He will be back for the 10th anniversary.”
Earlier, at the firehouse on West 48th Street, Mr. Obama sat with the firefighters for a lunch of eggplant Parmigiana and pasta with scallops, shrimp, and sun-dried tomatoes in a cream sauce.
The atmosphere was festive, the firefighters said afterward, though Mr. Obama also told them about the tense moments in the White House situation room on Sunday as he and other senior officials watched the raid unfold in Pakistan. “We sat together as gentlemen around the table, celebrating getting justice,” said Leonard Sieli, a firefighter.
Mr. Obama paused to look at a bronze plaque honoring the fallen firefighters from the station. Inside the firehouse, which is home to Engine Company 54, Ladder Company 4 and Battalion 9, there is a wall of photographs; tucked behind one of Michael F. Lynch is a faded child’s scrapbook with the title, “Superdad.”
Mr. Obama invited former President George W. Bush to join him at ground zero, but Mr. Bush declined. A spokesman for the former president said he appreciated the invitation but wanted to stick to his policy of staying out of the public spotlight since he left office.
For Mr. Bush, ground zero was the site of one of the iconic moments of his presidency. Days after the World Trade Center towers collapsed, he traveled to the smoldering wreckage to thank the rescue workers, delivering his speech through a firefighter’s bullhorn.
The White House was quick to say it took no offense at Mr. Bush’s decision not to attend, saying that Mr. Bush was invited in the spirit of unity that Mr. Obama said he hoped would prevail in the wake of Bin Laden’s killing, just as it prevailed after the killings perpetrated by Bin Laden nearly a decade ago.
“We’ve made clear that this is a moment of unity for Americans and a moment to recall the unity that existed in this country in the wake of the attacks on 9/11,” Mr. Carney said.
Though Mr. Obama visited ground zero while a presidential candidate, Thursday’s visit was his first as president. He did not deliver a speech, a decision that White House officials said was made to avoid creating any appearance of exploiting the families of the victims for political gain.
“N.Y.C. is about honoring the victims and their families,” one senior administration official said.
On Friday, the president will go on the road again to Fort Campbell in Kentucky for a less somber occasion: to pay tribute to those who flew the Navy Seal team to Bin Laden’s compound deep inside Pakistan. The Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, which provided air transportation for the Navy assault team, is based at Fort Campbell.