In 9/11 Salute, Obama Visits New York Firefighters, Ground Zero

Los Angels Times - May 05, 2011

by Tina Susman and Michael Muskal, Reporting from New York and Los Angeles

In the wake of the death of Osama bin Laden in a U.S. raid, President Obama arrives in New York to lay a wreath at the World Trade Center site. He also visits a firehouse that lost 15 men on the day of the terrorist attacks.

President Obama on Thursday arrived on a mission of commemoration and compassion in New York, where he met with firefighters and will lay a wreath at the site of the fallen World Trade Center, brought down by Al Qaeda, whose leader, Osama bin Laden, was killed in a U.S. raid in Pakistan.

Obama, whose approval rating has bumped upward after Sunday's foray against the United States' most wanted fugitive, also will meet with relatives of some those killed in the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, and with some of the firefighters and police who were among the first responders when the plane 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.

Obama 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 Rudy Giuliani, who was in office when the attack 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," Obama told the firefighters and dignitaries. "Obviously, you can't bring back the friends you lost.

"You're always going to have a president and an administration who's got your back," he promised.

From the firehouse, the president headed to the World Trade Center where he was to place a wreath at a spot amid a grove of trees. One tree, a callery pear, survived the attacks. It was moved off the site and now has been returned. Obama will place his wreath on a spot that sits in the shadow of the famous tree.

Buildings in various states of construction surround the plaza, which is in a large square carved into the ground that is the footprint of what used to be the South Tower of the trade center. When the site is finished, the square and another one where the North Tower used to stand will be filled with water to create reflecting pools.

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."

By 9 a.m., more than four hours before the president's scheduled 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, which will include a private meeting with victims' families after the wreath-laying, 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.

Susman reported from New York and Muskal from Los Angeles.