Obama talks with New York firefighters in Times Square before heading to… (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters )
Reporting from New York — In a poignant visit to the site that has come to symbolize both the trauma and triumphs arising from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President Obama placed a wreath at the fallen World Trade Center on Thursday and said the killing of Osama bin Laden upheld America's vow to "never forget" victims' suffering.
As a gusty wind blew flower petals onto the ground, Obama set the wreath of red, white and blue flowers on a simple wooden stand and then stood silently for a minute, head bowed, eyes closed, hands clasped in front of him. A cluster of invited guests, most of them relatives of those killed on Sept. 11, stood nearby, at the center of a plaza flanked by buildings in various states of construction and by cranes soaring hundreds of feet into the air but frozen for the presidential visit.
As the 10th anniversary of the attacks looms, efforts to speed up work at the site — which remains a dusty mangle of concrete slabs, metal and heavy equipment — have taken on a new urgency. With that has come dissension among some relatives of the 2,752 people who died there over how best to ensure their loved ones' memories are not lost amid the rush to rebuild. But for a day, at least, there were no signs of those disagreements as victims' relatives, onlookers and tourists heralded the U.S. military raid that led to the Al Qaeda leader's death and Obama's decision to follow it up with a visit to New York.
"He's a man of action," said Hollywood Houghton of Jersey City, N.J., who stood across from the World Trade Center site clad in an oversized red, white and blue top hat, chanting "Obama got Osama!"
Annette Atanous of New York and her mother, Janet Atanous, visiting from Rancho Palos Verdes, were hoping for a glimpse of Obama as they craned their necks amid the throngs of people hemmed in by a massive security cordon.
"I feel 100% American — I feel 1,000% American," said Janet Atanous. Her daughter rejected suggestions that Obama's visit might be viewed as overly political. Rather, she said, it was intended to remind New York residents that the anguish of the attacks has not been forgotten.
"People who don't live in New York don't necessarily have to go through the pain and suffering we go through. I'm reminded of it every day," she said.
Obama, whose approval rating bumped upward after Bin Laden's death in Pakistan, also met with police officers and firefighters who were among the first responders, and he spent time at a midtown Manhattan fire station that lost 15 firefighters that day — more than any other firehouse.
Speaking of Bin Laden's death, he told them: "What happened Sunday … sent a message around the world, but also sent a message here back at home that when we say we will never forget, we mean what we say."
Photos of the dead firefighters line a 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 said.
His most touching moments came with relatives of Sept. 11 victims such as 14-year-old Payton Wall. Her letter to Obama about the struggle of losing her father in the World Trade Center attack prompted the president to invite her and her family to join him at the wreath-laying.
Payton, sister Avery, 12, mother Diane, and Madison Robertson, 14, whose father also died at the site, stood a few feet behind Obama as he set down the wreath. Afterward, Obama walked back to the group, hugged them and exchanged a few quiet words before moving on to mingle with other relatives.
"I'm just honoring my father," Payton said. "He's looking down on me."
Obama also took note of the pendant hanging around the neck of Christopher Cannizzaro, who was 10 months old when the towers fell, killing his firefighter father. Now, he wears a small picture of the elder Cannizzaro around his neck. In addition to giving Christopher a fist-bump, Obama told him he shared his father's smile.
The visit was Obama's first to the World Trade Center site as president, although he went there as a candidate. Since then, the construction site has evolved dramatically.
Obama stood at the center of a plaza flanked by a huge square carved into the ground — the footprint of the fallen south tower of the World Trade Center. Now filled with concrete, the square eventually will hold water for a reflecting pool in memory of the victims. A second pool will mark the north tower's footprint.
The plaza is dotted with small trees, including the famous "Survivor Tree," which survived the collapse of the towers and was taken off-site and nursed back to health. Now it occupies a spot at the center of the plaza and offered dappled shade to Obama as he bowed his head for his moment of silence.
Times staff writer Michael Muskal in Los Angeles contributed to this report.