NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — President Barack Obama laid a wreath at the site of the collapsed Twin Towers of the World Trade Center paying tribute to victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in a solemn ceremony Thursday.
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The wreath was placed at the nine-acre 9/11 Memorial plaza on an “X” marked by the Survivor Tree that was pulled — charred and half dead — from the burning rubble.
That tree is now healthy and flowering on the plaza, having been planted to honor victims and first responders.
The President closed his eyes and clasped his hands at the outdoor memorial where the towers once dominated the Manhattan skyline. He shook hands with 9/11 family members and others at the site, where the skyscrapers were brought down by planes commandeered by Osama bin Laden’s followers. Nearly 3,000 people were killed.
The President was accompanied by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Gov. Chris Christie, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others who were there to witness the extraordinary rebirth of Ground Zero.
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Prior to visiting the site of the deadly terror attack, Obama visited Engine 54’s firehouse at 48th & 8th and the First Precinct Police Station in lower Manhattan — which covers the World Trade Center area.
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Obama told officers “there are still going to be threats out there,” alluding to the death of bin Laden. Of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, he said: “We keep them in our hearts. We haven’t forgotten.”
There was heavy security, but New Yorkers still turned out by the hundreds to gather just southeast of the World Trade Center site and line the roads to watch the President’s motorcades.
There were happy faces and flags waved in the crowd though they were cordoned off blocks from where the President entered the Ground Zero site.
Ground Zero itself, still very much a construction site, is nonetheless taking shape. The footprints of the fallen towers have been immortalized in fountains and reflecting pools. The Freedom Tower is now 60 stories tall. Construction of the 9/11 memorial is moving forward quickly in advance of the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
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Police were out in full force — in uniform, plainclothes and undercover. There has been heightened security in New York since the death of bin Laden.
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Officials have been on the lookout for suspicious packages, but police say there are no specific threats against the city.
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“God bless the Navy SEALS,” said McDonald, 38, from Brooklyn. She took work off on Thursday to wait for the President, saying she was prouder than ever to be an American.
“I’m so proud of the president,” she said. “It happened on his watch.”
“It’s 10 years after the terrible event, horrible massacre, and there’s some sense of closure now,” said Natalie Dourlot of Tourise, France.
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Some at Ground Zero came for a glimpse of Mr. Obama. “To see the President of the United States and I would love to shake his hand,” said Lawrence Bova of the Bronx.
Others came out of a sense of patriotism.
“I am a veteran so I felt I had a duty to come here and be here today,” said Korean War Veteran Ward Wilhide of Morristown, N.J.
Teddy Andrews lost a cousin in the 9/11 attacks. He came to lay down a burden.
“Everybody’s celebrating what happened with Osama bin Laden but I didn’t want to forget her, and so today is just my way of coming back and saying ‘I still haven’t forgotten’,” he said.
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Obama invited his predecessor, President George W. Bush, to the ceremony, but he declined the invitation and has kept out of the spotlight.
Retired FDNY deputy chief Jim Riches is one of the more recognizable representatives of September 11 families and met with Obama.
For Riches, this presidential visit was also an opportunity to make a plea for the budget-crunched New York City Fire Department.
“I have three sons in the Fire Department, and the mayor is looking to close 20 fire houses. I think that’s irrational. We’re the number one terrorist target in the world,” he said.
Many family members including Sally Reganhard, who lost her son Christian, stopped short of saying bin Laden’s death brings them closure.
“If I can say that someone in my position is happy, he’s given us some solace and consolation,” said Regenhard.
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