NEW YORK — It took nearly 10 years. But long after one president stood amid the rubble of the World Trade Center to vow that the guilty would soon hear from an outraged America, another returned Thursday to mark the hard-won moment of justice.
"When we say we will never forget, we mean what we say," President Obama said during a sober but triumphant visit to New York.
Speaking four days after a U.S. commando team hunted down and killed Osama bin Laden, Obama had hoped that former President George W. Bush would join him in marking the end of the long quest Bush started in a defining moment of his presidency.
Three days after bin Laden's terrorists killed nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001, at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, Bush climbed atop a rubble-covered fire truck in lower Manhattan. Half-shouting through a bullhorn to a cheering crowd of rescue workers, Bush said that the world heard the anguish and anger of Americans — and that the terrorists soon would hear from the U.S.
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Bush, who invaded Afghanistan to dislodge bin Laden's network and the regime that sheltered him, saluted the eventual success in Monday's raid in Pakistan. But he declined to join Obama. Former President Clinton, who launched cruise missiles at Afghanistan in an attempt to kill bin Laden in 1998, also declined to join Obama, citing a schedule conflict.
With former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani at his side, Obama used his first visit as president to the World Trade Center site to note the work through three presidencies to track down bin Laden.
"Our commitment to making sure that justice is done is something that transcended politics, transcended party," he said during a visit to the New York Fire Department station that lost the most men on Sept. 11.
"It didn't matter who was in charge, we were going to make sure that the perpetrators of that horrible act, that they received justice."
Before visiting ground zero, Obama first visited the "Pride of Midtown" fire house, which lost 15 men on 9/11, the most of any fire station. He also had a private lunch there with firefighters, all of whom were on duty on Sept. 11.
"It's some comfort, I hope, to all of you to know that when those guys took those extraordinary risks going into Pakistan, that they were doing it in part because of the sacrifices that were made in the states. They were doing it in the name of your brothers that were lost," the president said.
At ground zero, he quietly laid a wreath during a brief ceremony. Among the few people invited was Payton Wall, 14, who wrote to Obama about how she's coped with the loss of her father, who died in the World Trade Center. When Obama asked that she be invited, her mother wasn't aware that she'd even written the letter, White House aides said.
Met with families
Afterward, Obama met privately with about 60 family members of people killed at ground zero.
Outside, thousands lined the streets around the site, many saying they came to bear witness to the moment even if unable to see the ceremony.
"This is a big day," said Roy Sydnar, an engineer from New York who works nearby and who was there the day the towers fell. "I don't think we'll ever have closure, but it's comforting to know he's (bin Laden's) gone."
"This is good. It's great to get him," said Joe Raia, an unemployed construction worker. "Now we can get on with our lives."
It wasn't just New Yorkers. Visitors from around the country and the world made their way to the site.
"After the good news, we knew we wanted to be here," said Malena Herrera, a nurse from Eagle Pass, Texas, in town for her grandson's first communion. "It's a closure for the families. At least they know he's gone."
"This is good for the world," said Mark Allen, a mechanic from Warrington, England, in town for his honeymoon. "The world can try now to be a safer place," he added, his bride at his side.
Also Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden laid a wreath at the Pentagon.
Today, Obama and Biden plan to visit Fort Campbell, Ky., to honor troops who recently returned from Afghanistan. While there, Obama plans to meet privately with some of the troops involved in the bin Laden raid.