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First it was a spark, then a fire, and then it was a five-alarm blaze. The news spread on the web, people were receiving alerts on their smart-phones and they were tweeting like crazy; Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 World Trade Center attack, had been killed in Pakistan by U.S. forces.
It was late on May 1 when the news first surfaced. Pres. Barack Obama was due to go on television with the announcement sometime before midnight, but already some New Yorkers had stopped what they were doing had put on their clothes and were heading for Ground Zero.
Clare Gailey, 37, a writer, proofreader and copy editor, said she was among the first to get to the corner of Church and Vesey Streets, where the crowd was assembling. She said she arrived just before midnight, when there were only 50 people there.
“A hundred more arrived every five minutes,” said Gailey.
Gailey stayed for around an hour and a half, listening and observing. “There are long spaces of people just being quiet, which I think is appropriate in a way,” she said, “and then a cheer will start up or a chant will start up.”
“U.S.A.! U.S.A!” the crowd chanted. “N.Y.C.! N.Y.C.!”
They sang “God Bless America” and the “Star Spangled Banner.” They chanted, “Freedom! Freedom!”
“Osama was a hydra,” Gailey said, referring to the mythological creature that grew two new heads whenever an old one was severed. “Someone will take his place, but he was especially intelligent and especially trained and it’s excellent that he’s not in power.” She said she felt “relieved.”
By 12:30 a.m., the crowd was large and dense, stretching down Church Street. Someone had climbed on the arm of a street lamp and was waving a U.S. flag and dousing the people below with Champagne. Many people carried flags or had even draped themselves in the Stars and Stripes.
Francesco Bivacqua, who had a flag tacked to a broomstick, said he had driven in from Astoria, Queens. “I watched the president’s speech and when I heard that Osama had been killed, I ran down here,” he said. “My pride brought me down here.”
He said that he had friends whose parents were killed on “that tragic day.”
“From now on, this will be a special flag for me,” he said, as he waved his flag and it billowed above the heads of the crowd.
By 1:25 a.m. there were “thousands of people” there, a woman said, who was sitting on the shoulders of her male companion so that she could see. “They’re coming from all directions!” she told him.
A man climbed on to the roof of one of the many TV trucks lining the block, and the on-camera reporter sternly told him to get down.
The TV reporters and their crews carved holes in the crowd large enough to conduct their interviews. Bob Gibson, a retired New York City police officer being interviewed by a reporter from CNN, said he “never thought this night would come.”
A retired fireman with permanent lung problems caused by his service on 9/11 told a reporter that he viewed the events of that day as “an act of war” and bin Laden’s death as part of that war. He referred to the 343 firemen who were killed on 9/11 and said he was at Ground Zero that night to “let them know that justice has been done.”
“I’m extremely happy,” he said. “This brings me to tears for reasons that I can’t explain.”
The interviews were all but drowned out by the cheers and chants of the crowd. “Most of the people here are between the ages of 25 and 35,” said Nick DiIrio, 25, who had walked to Ground Zero from his apartment in Greenwich Village. “At the end of the day, this was a deep moment for all of us 10 years ago. We’ll all remember where we were and we’ll all remember where we were tonight. This is a moment to bond with people we love and people we want to be with and I came down here because there’s an intimacy here that you can’t feel anywhere else in the city. There are thousands of people here tonight and for some reason we felt the need to be physically here.”
The keening of bagpipes pierced the hubbub of the crowd, which made way for the player — a tall, robust, young man accompanied by friends holding an American flag bearing the names of those who had died on 9/11. Capt. Patrick Dowdell, 28, the bagpipe player, had just returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. A West Point graduate, he had also served in Iraq and is currently stationed in Fort Carson, Colo.
He said that he had joined the U.S. Army right after 9/11. His father, Lt. Kevin Dowdell, a firefighter with Rescue Company 4, was killed at the World Trade Center at the age of 46.
“I felt that if other people were going to go to sacrifice for families like mine, I wanted to be there with them,” Dowdell said of his reasons for joining the military. “I think people are expressing pride tonight – pride in our city and pride in our country and our armed forces who are willing to go out there and be the tip of the spear. I hoped I would see a day like this. The bad guy who started all of this – who masterminded it, is now gone and we can move forward, hopefully to better times.”
BY Terese Loeb Kreuzer