Likewise, in a brief ceremony at the Pentagon, Vice President Biden made no public remarks as he laid 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, and inscribed with the words “September 11, 2001.”
In anticipation of the presidential visit, the area around Ground Zero was a hive of commercial and tourist activity. On a sidewalk, a street vendor named Keith Wicks peddled T-shirts with a cartoonized bin Laden surrounded by American soldiers, and the slogan, “It Took Obama to Catch Osama.” “Just trying to get some groceries, make a couple bills,” Wicks said.
Shoppers skipped up the steps to Brooks Brothers, seemingly unaware that it had once served as a makeshift morgue. At a McDonald’s on Chambers Street, morning commuters and schoolkids ate McMuffins, oblivious to the fact that they were breakfasting where parched, traumatized, ash-encrusted firefighters had crawled through the doors crying, their ears bleeding and their hats smoking.
After a decade, some memories are fading. But some are indelible:
Peter Ganci, told that the towers were becoming unstable, shouting, “Everybody back!” — and then running forward because he still had men inside. Doctors working on first-responders whose boots had melted to their feet, “like marshmallows on a stick,” as one triage doctor said. The sidewalk in front of St. Luke’s Hospital, with 20 surgeons on call and a line of cots and IVs, waiting for wounded survivors who would not arrive. Nurses at the wreckage site, hanging bags of saline from broomsticks to help wash the eyes of rescuers. The strange finds of the salvage diggers: a single unbroken pane of glass; a singed pear tree that was, miraculously, still alive, which they dubbed the “Survivor Tree” and vowed to replant.
For many, the presidential visit served as an opportunity for remembrance. Soon, the site will no longer be an open gash, but a finished memorial and a museum. The deep holes will be filled with a reflecting pool and a cascading fountain, ringed with the names of the nearly 3,000 victims. Four buildings are planned, including a gleaming 103-story Freedom Tower already 60 stories high. Workers are struggling to complete the memorial in time for the 10th-anniversary ceremonies on Sept. 11, which Obama is scheduled to attend.
Ten years ago Obama was a state legislator in Chicago who watched the “nightmarish” events unfold on TV. Before Thursday, he had visited Ground Zero just once before, during the 2008 campaign.
But this week, as he laid the wreath of red roses, white carnations and blue hydrangeas, he entered a circle. It was the circle of commanders whose actions have been shaped by the terrible events of Sept. 11, 2001.
Staff writer Craig Whitlock contributed to this report.