NEW YORK – Solemnly honoring victims of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, President Barack Obama hugged survivors, thanked the heroes of one of the nation’s darkest days and declared Thursday that the killing of Osama bin Laden after all these years was an American message to the world: “When we say we will never forget, we mean what we say.”
On a brilliant blue-sky day, one of reflection more than celebration, Obama offered New Yorkers a moment of their own. Standing at the gritty construction site of ground zero, where the towers fell and a memorial now rises, the president laid a wreath of red, white and blue flowers for the nearly 3,000 who died, as he marked a turning point for the nation.
For Obama, the day was about the importance of being in New York in the aftermath of the successful raid to find and kill bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader. Obama addressed families who have watched and wondered for nearly a decade whether the government would track down its most infamous enemy.
On this special ground, Obama never mentioned bin Laden’s name.
Still, this was where the terrorist inflicted his greatest damage on a similarly sunny day in 2001 when hijacked airliners were crashed into the World Trade Center. Nearly 200 other people died when a third airliner hit the Pentagon – Vice President Joe Biden led a ceremony there on Thursday, and Bush Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld attended – and others were killed when a fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania.
Enthusiastic, emotional New Yorkers waited on streets to see the president, but there were few displays like the more raucous exuberance of a few days earlier.
Referring to the daring U.S. raid to take down bin Laden in Pakistan, Obama said of all those who died on Sept. 11: “It says we keep them in our hearts. We haven’t forgotten.”
Days after the attacks, President George W. Bush stood here with firefighters and a bullhorn. There was a different feel a decade later as another president paid his respects. Obama met with firefighters, then police, before having a solemn moment at ground zero and meeting privately with families of those who died.
Bin Laden was killed in a raid on his Pakistan compound early Monday.
The president closed his eyes and clasped his hands at the outdoor memorial where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once dominated the Manhattan skyline.
The president also peppered his brief comments with reminders of the challenges ahead, and his call for a new spirit of national unity. It wasn’t a moment for celebrating the military operation that killed bin Laden; that may come today, when the president visits Fort Campbell, Ky., home to the Army unit involved in transporting Navy SEALs into and out of bin Laden’s compound. White House officials said Obama intended to privately thank participants in the raid.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who led the city in the days after the attacks, joined Obama during the day.
Obama invited Bush to join him Thursday in New York, but the former president declined.
Ahead of Obama’s arrival, Deanne McDonald, of Brooklyn, stood at the corner of the site waving an American flag in each hand and shouting “Obama got Osama!”
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