Updated, 7:20 p.m.
President Obama laid a wreath at Ground Zero on Thursday to honor victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, four days after announcing that U.S. commandos had killed Osama bin Laden at his hideout in Pakistan.
The solemn ceremony was one of several symbolic stops the president made in a four-hour visit to New York City. He also spoke at a fire station that lost 15 firefighters when the twin towers fell and at the police precinct whose officers were first on the scene.
After carrying the red, white and blue wreath over to the memorial to Sept. 11 victims, Obama stood with three police officers, bowed his head along with them, and observed a moment of silence. He then attended a private meeting with about 60 relatives of victims of the attack.
The trip did not produce the kind of iconic moment of President Bush’s visit to Ground Zero immediately after the attacks, when he declared, “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
Explaining his decision not to give a formal speech at Ground Zero, the president’s aides said the power of the moment did not require words. Instead, Obama gave very brief remarks to the firefighters and police officers, saying the killing of bin Laden showed, “When we say, ‘we will never forget,’ we mean what we say.”
“This is a symbolic site of the extraordinary sacrifice that was made on that terrible day almost 10 years ago,” Obama said at the firehouse known as the “Pride of Midtown.” He later reviewed a wall of plaques commemorating the firefighters from the station who died on 9/11.
“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,” Obama said. “That when we say, ‘we will never forget,’ we mean what we say; that our commitment to making sure that justice is done is something that transcended politics.”
After sitting down with the firefighters to eat a lunch they had cooked, Obama stopped at the First Precinct police station, accompanied by former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
“Obviously you can’t bring back the friends you lost,” Obama told the firefighters, who were wearing their blue uniforms.
“It’s some comfort, I hope, to all of you to know that when those guys took those extraordinary risks going into Pakistan, that they were doing it in part because of the sacrifices that were made in the States,” Obama told the firefighters, standing in front of a firetruck. “They were doing it in the name of your brothers that were lost.”
Interviewed by CNN, Joe Ceravolo, one of the firefighters who joined Obama for lunch, said, “We were thankful just for the recognition.”
Obama gave similar remarks at the police station, telling a group of officers: “I am here basically to shake your hand and say how proud I am of all of you.”
At the wreath ceremony, Obama was joined by a number of key figures in New York, but also a 14-year old girl named Payton Wall, who lost her father Glen in the World Trade Center attack, according to the White House. She had written a letter to Obama, leading the White House to invite her, along with her sister and mother.
“It was just an honor to tell him about Michael,” said Monica Iken, one of the relatives who met with Obama, referring to her husband, who died in the attacks. She told CNN, “It was a very powerful moment to be able to tell him about it.”
Obama announced late Sunday that bin Laden had been killed, generating praise from both political parties. He and his aides spent much of the week dealing with the fallout of bin Laden’s death, and Obama said Wednesday the U.S would not release photos of the corpse.
Obama will meet Friday with soldiers who just returned from serving in Afghanistan at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. He is also likely to praise helicopter pilots from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, which supported the Navy SEAL team that killed bin Laden. That unit is based at Fort Campbell.
In a brief ceremony at the Pentagon Thursday, Vice President Biden also placed a floral wreath next to a blackened stone commemorating the crash of American Airlines Flight 77, which killed 184 people.
The charred stone was rebuilt into the base of the western facade of the Pentagon to mark the site of the crash. The words “September 11, 2001” are inscribed on the stone, behind which lies a time capsule.
Biden made no public remarks during the two-minute long ceremony, which was marked by a military bugler playing Taps. He was flanked by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Standing next to them were 13 members of the Arlington County Fire Department who had responded to the crash site.
Among the dignitaries and public officials who observed the ceremony from a distance were former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Also attending were about a dozen survivors and relatives of victims of the attack, who met with Biden afterward in private.
Staff writer Craig Whitlock also contributed to this story.