Friday, May 6, 2011

President Obama at ground zero: 'We mean what we say'

President Barack Obama slipped into New York City Thursday to meet quietly with first responders and the families of victims of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and mark the death of the attack’s mastermind, Osama bin Laden.

While careful to avoid the appearance of a victory lap, Obama laid a wreath at ground zero and delivered a clear message about his resolve - and the country’s - in pursuing bin Laden until U.S. forces finally located and killed him in Pakistan over the weekend.
“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 his first stop - a visit with firefighters at Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9 in midtown, which lost 15 men on Sept. 11, 2001.

“It didn’t matter which administration was in,” added the president, who plans to make no public remarks during his visit. “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.”

After stops at the fire house and a police station, Obama traveled to ground zero, where he placed a wreath of red, white and blue flowers at a memorial where the twin towers once stood. He greeted firefighters and cops, and shared a few words with several victims’ family members. He left, to cheers from the crowd, to meet with more relatives of victims.

“It’s been such an emotional roller coaster this week but after having time to really digest the chain of events i feel relieved,” said Mary Fetchett, whose 24-year-old son Brad was killed in the attacks.

“There’s been a lot of anxiety over the last ten years wondering if [bin Laden] was dead or alive, so I wanted to express my appreciation to President Obama,” said Fetchett, who was invited to the meeting with the president. “There is a sense of unity I think about the announcement of bin Laden’s death.”

The president’s helicopter landed near Wall Street shortly after 11 a.m., and was met by former mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Giuliani – a frequent critic who has praised Obama’s actions in hunting the terrorist leader - accompanied him on the trip to a midtown Manhattan firehouse, where he shook hands with firefighters and made brief remarks.

Obama observed a rite of passage for politicians commemorating the attacks, viewing a memorial plaque at the station and lunching privately with about a dozen firefighters in the cluttered kitchen, chowing down on homemade eggplant Parmigiana with sundried tomatoes and more.

“He loved the shrimp, he loved the veal,” said one of the firefighters.

“For him to come here really meant something… I could see that the president was clearly touched,” said New York City Fire Chief Edward Kilduff, who said that the mood lightened when the plates got heavy.

“We talked a little about the Mets, a little about the Yankees, a little about the Cubs, a little about the White Sox,” Kilduff added.

Obama then paid a similar visit with policemen at the First Precinct station in lower Manhattan, several blocks north of the World Trade Center site.

The visit to ground zero, the first since Obama laid flowers on a memorial there as a presidential candidate in 2008, came the day after Obama refused requests to release gruesome photographs showing the bullet-ridden body of bin Laden.

“We don’t need to spike the football,” Obama told “60 Minutes,” in explaining his decision – and that desire to maintain some balance in celebrating bin Laden’s death was evident in the low-key visit.

White House press secretary Jay Carney, speaking to reporters on Air Force One on the flight to New York, said the trip was intended “to perhaps help New Yorkers and Americans everywhere to achieve a sense of closure with the death of Osama bin Laden.”

Obama’s visit has drawn comparisons to President George W. Bush’s tour of the rubble a few days after the attacks on September 11, 2001 – when he grabbed a bullhorn and promised “the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”

Obama invited Bush to join him at ground zero but he declined, citing a desire to dodge the post-presidential spotlight.

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