Monday, September 11, 2006

Bushes lay wreaths at trade center site

By JENNIFER LOVEN, Associated Press

President Bush and his wife Laura stood in somber silence on Sunday after laying wreaths at the site where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once soared. He later pledged to make the anniversary "a day of renewing resolve" to remember the lessons of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

The Bushes set floral wreaths adrift in reflecting pools that mark the former locations of the north and south towers at the beginning of a two-day fifth-anniversary tour that will take them to all three sites of devastation.

They made a slow procession down a long ramp lined with a flag-bearing honor guard made up of firefighters and policemen, making their way four or five stories below ground level. Uttering no words, the Bushes walked hand-in-hand on the floor of the cavernous pit with bagpipes wailing in the background.

Afterward, the Bushes attended a service of prayer and remembrance at nearby St. Paul's Chapel, greeted firefighters at a firehouse overlooking ground zero and toured a private museum next door that is dedicated to 9/11 families.

"Laura and I approach tomorrow with a heavy heart. It's hard not to think about people who lost their lives on Sept. 11th, 2001," a tight-faced Bush told reporters outside the firehouse, which was destroyed in the attack and rebuilt. "I just wish there were some way we could make them whole."

Bush also called Monday's anniversay "a day of renewing resolve."

"I vowed that I'm never going to forget the lessons of that day," he said, still clutching his wife's hand. "There is still an enemy out there who would like to inflict the same kind of damage again."

They were the first stops of nearly 24 hours of observances at the three sites where terrorists wrought death and destruction and transformed his presidency.

On Monday, he was to visit with firefighters and other first responders at a firehouse in lower Manhattan; attend a ceremony at the field in Shanksville, Pa., where one of the hijacked planes hurtled to the ground; and participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Pentagon. Like at ground zero, Bush did not plan to participate in the official anniversary observances at the other crash sites, intending to avoid the distraction that accompanies a presidential appearance.

He was ending Monday with a 9 p.m. EDT address from the Oval Office.

The president's five-year anniversary schedule recalls his marking of the first anniversary in 2002, when he also toured each crash site, embracing family members of the victims and speaking at the Pentagon and New York's Ellis Island. Since then, he has kept a lower profile on each anniversary.

Across New York on Sunday, residents marked the day at other ceremonies large and small.

From a service of remembrance at St. Patrick's Cathedral in midtown Manhattan to a chant at a Buddhist temple on Staten Island, New Yorkers observed the somber anniversary with prayer and reflection.

Bush and his wife wore grim expressions as they took their places for the interfaith service at St. Paul's. The 240-year-old Episcopal church, across the street from the site, escaped damage and became a center of refuge for weary rescue workers.

Bush's pew in the church was filled with representatives of the president's experience of the attacks. Jane Vigiano, who lost two sons in the attack — Joe, a policeman and John, a firefighter — greeted the Bushes and sat next to the president. On Laura Bush's side was Bob Beckwith, the retired firefighter who handed Bush a bullhorn on the president's first ground zero visit.

Farther down was Arlene Howard, the mother of 9/11 victim George Howard, a New York Port Authority police officer. Bush keeps Howard's badge as a constant reminder of the attacks.

A printed message from the Rev. James H. Cooper said: "The message to people who visit St. Paul's is simple: Go back to your communities knowing that a place of love stood next door to Ground Zero. Try to make the world a better place."

Outside the church, several dozen protesters shouted "arrest Bush" as the president's motorcade left. They held black balloons that said, "Troops home."

Accompanying the president and first lady at ground zero and in church were New York Gov. George Pataki, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Rudy Giuliani, who was New York mayor at the time of the attacks.

Even before Bush left Washington, surrogates from Vice President Dick Cheney on down spent the Sept. 11 anniversary's eve vigorously defending the administration's record on improving the national defense over the past five years.

"There has not been another attack on the United States," Cheney said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "And that's not an accident."

On television and newspaper opinion columns, Cabinet secretaries and agency heads sought to make the case that the government under Bush has made important changes that have lessened the risk of attack.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cited additional security at ports and airports and increased cooperation among intelligence agencies, a point echoed by the nation's intelligence chief, John Negroponte.

Democrats, however, contend the administration has fallen short because so little cargo is inspected at U.S. ports and chemical plants, and other high-value sites are vulnerable.

"I think we're in trouble," said Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean. "We have not pursued the war on terror with the vigor that we should have because we've gotten bogged down in this civil war in Iraq."

Presidential spokesman Tony Snow rejected suggestions that the administration's hunt for al-Qaida leader bin Laden — mastermind of the 9/11 attacks — had bogged down. "We're not at liberty to go into sources and methods, but we have never stopped looking for him," Snow told reporters aboard Air Force One as Bush flew to New York.

"Bin Laden is harder to find these days because he in fact does not feel at liberty to move about, he does not feel at liberty to use electronic communications...Under such circumstances, somebody leaves fewer clues," Snow added.

The fifth anniversary falls less than two months before elections in which Republican control of Congress is seen as in danger.

In a series of speeches that began more than a week ago and continue for at least one more, Bush and his political advisers are seeking to frame the vote as a choice between Republicans who are effective stewards of Americans' safety and Democrats who would erode protections.
A poll released Sunday shows the landscape in which the parties are competing. Just over half of those surveyed believe the country is safer from attack than on Sept. 11, 2001, and that the fight against terrorism is going well, according to ABC News. In December 2003, nearly two-thirds of those questioned felt the anti-terrorism battle was going well.

Some 2,749 died when the twin towers collapsed after being pierced by hijacked airliners. In all, some 2,973 died in the World Trade Center, Pennsylvania and Pentagon attacks, not counting the 19 hijackers.