NEW YORK — On a mission to bury the memory of Osama bin Laden by honoring those who died in the fiery Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, President Barack Obama on Thursday visited firefighters and police who lost colleagues at New York's Ground Zero and laid a wreath at the site.
"When we say we will never forget, we mean what we say," he said in brief comments to the firefighters and others at the station he visited in New York's theater district. The station lost 15 men during the attacks.
Obama plans to meet SEAL team members from the bin Laden operation at Fort Campbell, Ky., on Friday, sources told the AP.Story: Obama thanks, awards team in bin Laden raid
In his brief New York remarks, the president never mentioned bin Laden's name.
"This is a symbolic site of the extraordinary sacrifice that was made on that terrible day," the president said at Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9.
At the First Precinct police station in lower Manhattan, the first on the scene on Sept. 11, Obama alluded to bin Laden's killing and said of those who died in the Sept. 11 attacks, "We keep them in our hearts. We haven't forgotten."
At Ground Zero, Obama laid the wreath at the foot of the so-called Survivor Tree, which sustained damage during the attack but was freed from the rubble.
The president closed his eyes and clasped his hands at the outdoor memorial where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once dominated the Manhattan skyline.
He shook hands with 9/11 family members and others dressed in black at the site where the skyscrapers were brought down by planes commandeered by bin Laden's followers. Nearly 3,000 people were killed.Video: Obama honors victims of 9/11 at ground zero (on this page)
Among those attending the wreath-laying ceremony were New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Port Authority Chairman David Samson. Uniformed officers from the FDNY, NYPD and Port Authority also stood at attention along the pathway to the Survivor Tree. Other elected officials from the New York area and a group of 9/11 families also viewed the ceremony.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who led the city in dark days after the attacks, joined Obama during the day.theGrio slideshow: Obama visits Ground Zero
Obama was greeted by more than 1,000 well-wishers when his motorcade arrived at Ground Zero. Some screamed, jumped up and down, waved and flashed “V” signs with their fingers. The crowd was cordoned off from the site of the wreath-laying.
The president later held private talks with some 60 families of 9/11 victims.
New York City police briefly detained a man pushing a yellow bicycle, carrying a messenger bag and yelling "Secret Service, coming through" in order to get past throngs of onlookers as Obama made a visit to ground zero.
Officers emptied his messenger bag and brought him inside a post office located steps from the trade center site. At least one officer had a gun drawn. The man was questioned and released. He was not armed.
At the Pentagon, Vice President Joe Biden led a similar wreath-laying ceremony at the site where another hijacked plane crashed into the nation's military headquarters. Among those present was Donald Rumsfeld, who was President George W. Bush's defense secretary at the time of the attacks.
Obama's New York visit comes after he sharply rejected calls to release photos of a slain bin Laden so the world could see some proof of death.
The president said he would not risk giving propaganda to extremists or gloat by publicizing grotesque photos of a terrorist leader shot in the head.
To those who keep on doubting, Obama said earlier this week, "You will not see bin Laden walking on this earth again."
His government, meanwhile, insisted the shooting of an unarmed bin Laden during a daring raid in Pakistan was lawful and in national self-defense.Live blog posts from Ground Zero
Obama's New York visit was intended to have a measured tone — not a bookend to President George W. Bush's bullhorn moment, but more somber and private.
White House spokesman Jay Carney called it a "cathartic moment for the American people."
At Ground Zero, Obama visited a bustling construction site that bears little resemblance to the pit that became ground zero in the months after Sept. 11, 2001.
The emerging skyscraper informally known as Freedom Tower is more than 60 stories high now. Mammoth fountains and reflecting pools mark the footprints of the fallen twin towers.
Thousands of people climbed street signs and waved flags in celebration after hearing that bin Laden was killed in Pakistan on Monday, which was Sunday night in New York.
'Father to father'
Jim Riches, whose firefighter son was among the nearly 3,000 people killed at the World Trade Center, planned to meet with the president on Thursday.
"I just want to thank him, hug him and thank him and shake his hand," Riches said. "Father to father. Thank you for doing this for me."Slideshow: World reacts to death of Osama bin Laden (on this page)
The president was handling the moment without being seen as overly celebrating bin Laden's death or aiming to boost his own standing in victory.
"The president is coming here because this is the place where you can really feel what happened that day," said Joelle Tripoul, a tourist visiting Manhattan from Marseilles, France. "And I think he wants to come to say that bin Laden's death marks the end of this stage of our human journey after 9/11."
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Al-Qaida terrorists hijacked jets and flew two of them into the World Trade Center's twin towers.
Both buildings collapsed, trapping thousands inside and also claiming the lives of firefighters and others who had rushed to help them.
A third plane slammed into the Pentagon. Officials have speculated that a fourth plane had been heading for the U.S. Capitol or perhaps even the White House when it crashed in Pennsylvania.
A few days later, Bush stood amid the rubble and spoke through a bullhorn.
When one worker yelled, "I can't hear you," the president responded: "I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people — and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!"
All these years later, Obama said this is no time for gloating.
"We don't need to spike the football," he said as he told CBS he would keep bin Laden's death photos sealed.Story: Obama decides not to release bin Laden death photo
Bush declines invite
Obama invited Bush to join him Thursday, but the former president declined.
Laura Bush told The Associated Press on Thursday that she and her husband were out to dinner Sunday night when they received word that Obama wanted to speak with him. The former president went home to take the call informing him that U.S. military forces had killed Osama bin Laden in a raid of his compound in Pakistan, Laura Bush said.
The former first lady told the AP that her husband declined an invitation to attend Thursday's event in New York because "that's for President Obama to do at this point."
Heightened security put in place in response to the killing of bin Laden will remain for Obama's visit.
Police officials said there are no specific threats against the city but also say they assume bin Laden's "disciples" might try to avenge his death with a terror attack.
"The ceremony will provide some closure to a horrific event," said Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Firefighters, who was invited by the White House to attend Obama's ground zero event.
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