Loaders, excavators and backhoes stood motionless, and the giant cranes sat suspended in midair above the bowed head of president. An honor guard of police officers and firefighters was stiff and still in dress uniforms. Nothing moved in the unfinished memorial mall, except a few leaves on the limbs of the elegant pear tree known as the Survivor Tree, stirred by the breezes that always seem to swirl at Ground Zero.
About 60 relatives of victims attended the ceremony at the invitation of the White House. But there were holes in those ranks, too.
Some families find it too difficult to return to Ground Zero. Among them is the family of New York City Fire Chief Peter Ganci, who was one of 343 firefighters killed when the twin towers collapsed.
“You stand there and it’s a constant reminder of pain,” said Ganci’s son, Christopher, himself now a member of the city’s fire department. While he appreciated that bin Laden had met his just end, he said: “It’s bittersweet. You never want to wish, you never want to cheer for death.”
Nearly 10 years ago, on Sept. 14, 2001, another president, George W. Bush, came to Ground Zero bulky and workmanlike in a windbreaker and boots, stood on a heap of smoking debris with his arm around the shoulders of a firefighter and shouted through a bullhorn. To the armies of volunteers in the wreckage who couldn’t hear him, he blared, “I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people — the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”
Obama’s visit was a bookend to that event. But it was a far different affair, and a somewhat tricky one, given that the White House seemed anxious to find the right tone and to avoid the appearance of taking a “victory lap.” The president was visible to the general public only from a distance, slim and silver-headed and discreet in a dark suit and bright necktie, and he made no public remarks.
It was a good decision as far as Ganci was concerned. “Otherwise it looks like a stump speech,” he said. “Other politicians who have come and gone have made that mistake. It’s a solemn place. You go there to reflect and remember.”
The president made only a short private address to firefighters at the “Pride of Midtown” firehouse, Engine 54, Ladder 9, Battalion 9, at 48th Street and Eighth Avenue. The unit lost 15 men on 9/11, an entire shift, the heaviest casualties of any stationhouse in the city that day.