NEW YORK – President Bush and his wife Laura stood in somber silence on Sunday after laying wreaths at the ground zero site where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once soared. They honored the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks on a tour that will take them to all three sites of devastation on the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Bushes set floral wreaths adrift in reflecting pools that mark the former location of the north and south towers. They uttered no words, and walked hand-in-hand on the floor of the cavernous pit, after a slow procession down the long, flag-lined ramp from the street level four to five stories above.
The Bushes then attended a service of prayer and remembrance at nearby St. Paul's Chapel.
The 240-year-old Episcopal church, across the street from the site, escaped damage and became a center of refuge for weary rescue workers.
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. Nearly 3,000 Americans were killed in the attacks.
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On Monday, the anniversary, he was to visit with firefighters and other emergency workers 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.
He also was to speak to Americans during a prime-time address Monday night from the Oval Office.
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Accompanying the president and first lady at ground zero 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.
Across New York, 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.
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Bush and his wife wore grim expressions as they took their places for the interfaith service at St. Paul's.
Both greeted Arlene Howard, the mother of 9/11 victim George Howard, a New York Port Authority police officer, with a kiss on the cheek. Bush keeps Howard's badge as a constant reminder of the attacks. His widow sat beside Bush in the front-row pew.
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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."
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.
Cheney focused on anti-terrorism efforts that he has been instrumental in supporting: a warrantless wiretapping program to monitor the international communications of people in America with suspected ties to al-Qaida; a system to track international financial transactions; and tough policies on the detention and interrogations of suspected terrorists.
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-year 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 over 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.
Bush is doing this in part by aiming to restore the decisive, tough-on-terrorism image he built after the 2001 attacks. Democrats are laboring to make the elections a referendum on the president's prosecution of an unpopular war in Iraq.
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.
Earlier Sunday, the president attended church in Washington and went biking before heading to New York.
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.
The schedule for Monday included a visit to a firehouse nicknamed "Fort Pitt" in the Lower East Side in honor of the first responders who rushed into the towers.
At the base for Ladder 18, Engine 15 and Battalion 4, the president was to have breakfast with firefighters, police officers and Port Authority police and observe moments of silence to mark the times when planes struck each tower.
From New York, the next stop was to be Shanksville, Pa., where 40 people died when a plane slammed into the ground, and then the Pentagon, to mark the deaths of 184 there, before returning to the White House for the televised address.
At all three crash sites, each with memorials far from completion, Bush did not plan to participate in the official anniversary observances, intending to avoid the distraction that accompanies a presidential appearance.
In 2002, Bush 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 the anniversary.