NEW YORK — President Barack Obama soberly laid a wreath Thursday at the World Trade Center site in New York, marking Osama bin Laden's death where his al-Qaida followers inflicted the greatest damage.
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.
"When we say we will never forget, we mean what we say," Obama said.
The president met privately at the memorial site with about 60 family members from various 9/11 organizations. He also visited the firefighters and police officers whose response to the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, turned them into heroes and symbols of national resolve, but also cost them heavy casualties on that horrific day.
"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. The firehouse in New York's theater district lost 15 firefighters on 9/11, more than any other firehouse.
In the attacks, Al-Qaida terrorists hijacked jets and flew two of them into the World Trade Center's towers. Both buildings collapsed, trapping thousands inside and also claiming the lives of firefighters and others who had rushed to help.
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 after passengers fought back in Pennsylvania.
Months before the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, and days after bin Laden was killed in Pakistan by U.S. commandos, Obama's visit gave New York its own moment of justice.
It wasn't a moment for celebrating the military operation that killed bin Laden; that may come Friday, when the president visits Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to thank members of the Army unit involved in transporting Navy SEALS in and out of bin Laden's compound.
On Thursday, 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."
Obama said he hoped the results of the raid on bin Laden's compound showed that "we did what we said we were going to do, and that Americans, even in the midst of tragedy, will come together, across the years, across politics, across party, across administrations, to make sure that justice is done."
Obama never mentioned bin Laden by name in his brief remarks to firefighters and police.
Enthusiastic, emotional New Yorkers waited on streets to see the president, but there were few displays like the more raucous exuberance of a few days earlier. There were happy faces, shouts of "USA! USA!" and flags waved in the crowd, but there also was heavy security and most people were cordoned off blocks from where the president could be seen.
At ground zero, the mood was somber, even sad, as the president stood where the towers had been, seeing the faces of the children who lost parents and adults who lost spouses. As Obama bowed his head, a jetliner screamed by far overhead on a blue-sky day.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who led the city in dark days after the attacks, joined Obama during the day.
At the Pentagon, meanwhile, 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 George W. Bush's defense secretary at the time of the attacks.
Obama invited Bush to join him Thursday in New York, but the former president declined.
Obama's visit came as new details emerged of the daring raid on bin Laden's Pakistan compound. A senior defense official said Thursday that only one of the five people killed in the raid was armed and fired a shot — an account that differs from original administration portrayals of an intense firefight. The White House also now says bin Laden was unarmed when he was shot, after officials initially said the terrorist was holding a gun or even firing.
Obama spokesman Jay Carney told reporters traveling with the president on Air Force One that the trip was intended in part "to perhaps help New Yorkers and Americans everywhere to achieve a sense of closure with the death of Osama bin Laden."