By Connor Adams Sheets
The air at Ground Zero last Thursday afternoon was tense and chilly as the moment neared when President Barack Obama would be laying a wreath at the foot of the 64 unfinished floors of the rising One World Trade Center tower.
Dozens of Secret Service and NYPD counterterrorism officers swarmed the area with bomb-sniffing dogs, Kevlar vests and assault weapons as dignitaries nervously chatted in anticipation.
All was still in this place where nearly 3,000 lives were lost amid unimaginable chaos on another clear day nearly a decade ago.
It was Obama’s second time visiting the site, and his appearance came just four days after he announced that U.S. forces had killed 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
But the day was one of somber remembrance, as Obama met with victims’ families, first responders and elected officials before the event, where neither he or any other politician uttered a single public comment.
Sally Regenhard of Yonkers lost her son Christian Michael Otto Regenhard in the World Trade Center. She spoke before Obama’s arrival about the emotions she was experiencing.
“You never get over the pain, the grief, the sorrow,” she said, clutching a photograph of her young son. “My son was a saint and he was a peace-loving person. I’m not sure what he would say today. Bin Laden is responsible for inexplicable evil. No one should get away with that.”
The first sign of movement came when a procession of firefighters emerged onto the square around the Survivor Tree, which was planted at the World Trade Center in the 1970s, sustained extensive damage during the attack and was nursed back to health and replanted last year as a symbol of hope.
One of the firefighters carried a wreath of red, white and blue flowers. The family of Glen James Wall, who died in the 9/11 attack, appeared next — his wife, two daughters and a friend of one of the daughters who also lost her father on 9/11.
After a few charged moments had passed, Obama finally walked onto the plaza at the heart of the Ground Zero site, accompanied by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Port Authority Chairman David O. Samson.
Obama individually greeted each of the firefighters who stood at attention along one side of the square, then he and a fireman took the wreath, hung it on a wooden easel and bowed their heads in prayer.
Obama proceeded to individually greet, hug and speak for several minutes with the Wall family members. He shook hands with an array of U.S. congressmen and congresswomen and other dignitaries, then left as soon as he had come, having spent about 15 minutes at the site.
Thousands were gathered along the streets of downtown Manhattan to catch a glimpse of his motorcade as it headed unhindered back toward his helicopter.
Lee Miller of Jamaica came with his mother Julie in hopes of seeing Obama, which they ultimately were unable to do because of security measures. But he was happy just to be near the man who had ordered the killing of bin Laden.
“I’m just here to see the president. America struck a blow for democracy in a tumultuous world wracked with conflict when we got bin Laden,” he said. “It’s more of an area of sadness here than anything else. If anything, we can take some good news out of this day.”
Francisco Abreu, a Woodside construction worker working to build One World Trade Center, had part of the afternoon off for the wreath laying event.
“It’s a good feeling that we’re working here building the new tower,” he said. “It’s a good feeling that the president’s here. It’s going to cause a lot of traffic, but it’s good that he came.”
Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.