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President Obama lays wreath at NYC's ground zero

May 5, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
President Barack Obama marked the latest chapter in the war on terror Thursday with a ceremony at ground zero.

He laid a wreath at the site of the collapsed Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, paying tribute to victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack. The ceremony has an added layer of poignancy, now that the man who organized the attacks is dead.

"President Obama kept that pledge alive to all first responders, all New Yorkers, all Americans, not to stop until bin Laden was captured or killed," said Paul Nunziato, president of the Port Authority Police Benevolent Association.

Obama met with Sept. 11 families, police officers, and toured a fire station that lost 15 firefighters during the attack before arriving at ground zero to lay the wreath of remembrance of the nearly 3,000 people killed that day. Obama was accompanied by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

"I just want to thank him," said Jim Riches, who lost his son during the Sept. 11 attacks. "Hug him and thank him, shake his hand and say thanks. From father to father, thank you for doing this for me, taking care of the man that's out there bragging and saying he is proud that he killed my son."

Former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were invited to the event but chose not to attend. Bush congratulated Obama, the military and intelligence personnel in a statement Sunday night, calling Osama bin Laden's death "a victory for America," however, he felt that that acting presidents alone should preside over such official ceremonies.

The somber ceremony took place at the foot of the "Survivor Tree," which is a pear tree that survived the Sept.11 attack. It was removed from the site and nursed back to health before being re-planted at the site in Dec. 2010.

"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 that when we say we will never forget, we mean what we say," said Obama while visiting a New York City fire station. "Our commitment to make sure justice was done is something that transcended politics. We were going to make sure that the perpetrators of that horrible act received justice."

People weren't necessarily celebrating at the ceremony, but were glad to see this chapter come to a close. In talking with the families of Sept. 11 victims, they were happy to see the president and wanted to thank him for bringing bin Laden to justice.

"It was breathtaking," said one spectator. "I was so proud of him and so proud of this country."

"He was down at ground zero when he died with 342 other brothers," said Maureen and Alexander Santoro of their son who was a firefighter. "He died a hero. We will never forget him. He is with us every single day. He is rejoicing up in heaven that this happened the way it did, and that the American troops got this guy."

Construction is continuing at the site where the Freedom Tower is being built. It will be 1,776 feet tall and 110 stories high. There are currently 64 stories built, and is going at a rate of approximately one story per week. It will also include a museum. Completion is expected for 2013.

Obama is expected to stay in New York City until Thursday afternoon.

ABC News reported that the president will meet with members of the Navy SEAL team and others from the mission to kill bin Laden at Fort Campbell, Kentucky on Friday. Sources say Obama will thank the team members of their courage and sacrifice and congratulate them on a job well done.

Response to Obama's decision to not release photos

There's new criticism of how the administration has handled news of bin Laden's death. Reuters is releasing photos of some of those killed in the compound, but not of bin Laden himself. The president's cabinet was split over whether or not they should make the photos public.

It is reported that the president was persuaded by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who argued that the photos could be used as a propaganda tool to recruit more terrorists. Still, some lawmakers think people have a right to see them.

"I think to put down the conspiracy theories it would have been better to release it." said Homeland Security Chairman Republican Peter King. "I think it was a close call because I do know people in the administration who think it should be released."

"You take the DNA testing, 99.7 percent I think it was, assuredly that it was Osama bin Laden," said House Committee Chairman Republican Mike Rogers. "His wives are now saying it was Osama bin Laden. You take all that evidence. It's pretty clear Osama bin Laden is dead. Should we risk the life of one soldier to make these public?"

Several Sept. 11 families also said it would help them with the closure process to see bin Laden's face. But ultimately the president says it's just too risky, so he won't release them.

"It is important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence, as a propaganda tool," Obama said.

"We want to see him dead," said Lisa Reina, who is a family member of a Sept. 11 victim. "He took away a part of all our lives that we're never going to get back, and I think it's very important for the family members to see a picture."

Look for Eyewitness News anchor Marc Brown's reports from ground zero in New York City Thursday on Eyewitness News.

The Associated Press contributed to this story