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Last Thursday President Barack Obama visited Ground Zero for the first time since being elected, drawing hundreds of people to Lower Manhattan eager to catch a glimpse of the Commander in Chief.
The World Trade Center site was one of several stops Obama made in New York that day to commemorate the victims of 9/11 in light of Osama bin Laden’s death the Sunday prior. The tenor of the Ground Zero ceremony was solemn, as the president placed a colorful wreath of flowers at the base of the survivor tree on Memorial Plaza, proceeding to pay his respects to 9/11 family members.
One of them was 14-year-old Payton Wall, who recently wrote Obama a note about her father, 9/11 victim Glen Wall. Another was Sally Regenhard, mother of the late firefighter, 28-year-old Christian Regenhard.
Meeting Obama for the first time at the W.T.C., Regenhard said, was a “wonderful experience.”
“We just felt his sincerity and his concern,” said Regenhard of Obama. “There’s nothing like the personal touch. It really validated the emotion and the involvement of not only the [9/11] families, but the community.”
Obama and the families were joined by several New York politicians, including NYS Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, State Senator Daniel Squadron, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Former president George W. Bush declined Obama’s invitation to the ceremony, wishing to keep out of the public eye, according to a spokesperson.
The president did not give a formal talk so as to avoid appearing to use the visit for personal political gain, according to White House officials.
Broadway, Vesey and Barclay Sts. were closed, as well as parts of the West Side Highway and F.D.R. Drive, to prepare for the president’s visit, according to NYC Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. “We hope that [Obama’s visit to New York] brings a measure of justice and some solace to families and friends of the victims of 9/11,” he said.
The atmosphere surrounding the W.T.C. was anything but solemn. Local residents, tourists and the media packed Church St., taking photographs with their Smartphones and anxiously peering through the crowds in search of the president’s motorcade. A wave of cheers rippled down the street each time a black car passed by.
Several pedestrians felt grateful to Obama for visiting their home turf. “It just shows that he supports New Yorkers, and that the families of 9/11 have not been forgotten,” said 26-year-old Stephanie McDougall, from Ridgewood, Queens. Her firefighter father recently developed respiratory problems from partaking in the post-9/11 clean-up effort at Ground Zero.
“I think it’s a great symbol that he came to New York,” echoed Tom Kilgore, a resident of Downtown Brooklyn. “It gives America a sense of closure.”
Lucien Bourdeau, a visual artist based in Brooklyn, was selling colorful portraits of Obama, entitled “positive thinker,” that he hoisted up on his shoulders.
“Today’s a good day for me. I’m very happy they got the bad guy,” Bourdeau said in passing.
Some onlookers, however, were disappointed that Obama did not address the public, such as 45-year-old M. Nelson from the Bronx. He said he waited two hours to see the president, to no avail.
“I thought he was going to make a speech. We got played out,” he said, frustrated. “When it’s 2012 and he’s ready to be reelected, he’s going to be shaking everybody’s hand then.”
Local elected officials were pleased with the president’s visit. “Today’s visit by President Obama helps close a painful chapter in America’s history,” said Silver in a statement. “The ongoing redevelopment of my Lower Manhattan community and the progress we continue to make are important symbols to the world of the resiliency of our city, and [shows] that the victims of the heinous acts of September 11, 2001 will never be forgotten.”
Squadron said he was honored to join Obama at the W.T.C. last week to pay tribute to the 9/11 victims. “As we approach the tenth anniversary, Lower Manhattan continues to rebuild — growing stronger each day and remaining one of the best places on earth to live, work and raise a family,” he said. “With Osama bin Laden finally brought to justice and extraordinary progress being made in the rebuilding of the site, I am reminded of the infinite capacity of our city, state and nation to come together and rise above enormous challenge.”
Prior to the Ground Zero ceremony, Obama made an unanticipated stop at the First Police Precinct, whose officers were among the first to report to the W.T.C. on 9/11. “A lot of you have probably comforted loved ones of those who were lost; a lot of you have probably looked after kids who grew up without a parent,” he reportedly said to the police officers. “What we did [last] Sunday [in Pakistan] was directly connected to what you do every single day. And I know I speak for the military teams [and] the intelligence teams that helped get bin Laden in saying that we know the sacrifices and courage that you show as well, and that you are part of the team that helped us achieve our goal.”
The president also had lunch with firefighters at the Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9 firehouse on W. 48th St. and 8th Ave., the crew who responded to the attempted Times Square bombing last year. The firehouse, nicknamed the “Pride of Midtown,” lost 15 firefighters on 9/11 — more than any other in New York City.
Safety at Ground Zero
Since bin Laden’s death, which Commissioner Kelly referred to as “good news with complications,” the New York Police Department is continuing to take added safety precautions in Downtown and citywide. “In the short term, it may heighten some risks, and that’s what we’re guarding against, with our deployments and intelligence analysts doing their work,” he said.
Kelly has assigned additional officers and heavy weapons teams to monitor streets, subways and bridges; and has increased correspondence with its police officers stationed in a dozen foreign cities. “We use their reports and our intelligence analysts to give us a sense of what’s happening here and in other locations,” Kelly explained.
When asked how long these supplementary measures would be implemented, the commissioner replied, “We’ll make that judgment literally on a daily basis.”
There are currently no lane closures in Lower Manhattan, according to the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner of Public Information’s office.
Article BY Aline Reynolds