May 6, 2011

President pays silent tribute at ground zero

He spends time with firefighters and victims' families in a visit prompted by the death of the mastermind of Sept. 11.

By SALLY JENKINS The Washington Post

NEW YORK - Before the president stood a flower wreath meant to signify closure for families of the victims of the September 2001 terrorist attacks, four days after U.S. commandos killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. It also represented completion of a circle at the ground zero site, from crematorium to cemetery to construction site.

Barack Obama
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President Obama, accompanied by a New York City firefighter, observes a moment of silence Thursday at the site of the World Trade Center towers. He did not make any public remarks but spoke privately to a group of firefighters.

The Associated Press

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But there remains a gaping hole where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood. In its footprint Thursday was a raw open plaza with half-laid stone and gravel trenches, where President Obama paid a brief tribute with a long minute of silence. Loaders, excavators and backhoes stood motionless, and the giant cranes sat suspended in midair above the bowed head of the president.

An honor guard of police officers and firefighters was stiff and still in dress uniforms. Nothing moved in the unfinished memorial mall, except a few leaves on the limbs of the elegant pear tree known as the Survivor's Tree, stirred by the breezes that always seem to swirl at ground zero.

About 60 relatives of victims attended the ceremony at the invitation of the White House. But there were holes in those ranks, too. Some families find it too difficult to return to ground zero. Among them is the family of New York City fire chief Peter Ganci, who was one of 343 firefighters killed when the twin towers collapsed.

"You stand there and it's a constant reminder of pain," said Ganci's son, Christopher, himself now a member of the FDNY. While he appreciated that bin Laden had finally met his just end, he added, "I gotta say, it's bittersweet. You never want to wish, you never want to cheer for death."

Nearly 10 years ago on Sept. 14, 2001, another president, George W. Bush, came to ground zero, bulky and workmanlike in a windbreaker and boots. He stood on a heap of smoking debris with his arm around the shoulders of a firefighter and shouted through a bullhorn. To the armies of volunteers in the wreckage who couldn't hear him, he blared, "I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people -- the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!"

Obama's visit was a bookend to that event. But it was a far different affair, and a somewhat tricky one, given that the White House seemed eager to find the right tone and to avoid the appearance of taking a "victory lap." The president was visible to the general public only from a distance, discreet in a dark suit and bright necktie, and he made no public remarks.

It was a good decision as far as Ganci was concerned. "Otherwise it looks like a stump speech," he said. "Other politicians who have come and gone have made that mistake. It's a solemn place. You go there to reflect and remember."

The president made only a short private address to firefighters at the "Pride of Midtown" firehouse, Engine 54, Ladder 9, Battalion 9, at 48th Street and 8th Avenue. The unit lost 15 men on 9/11, an entire shift, the heaviest casualties of any station house in the city that day.

"When we say we will never forget, we mean what we say," Obama told them, shortly before sitting down to an informal lunch in the firehouse. "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.

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