1st responders see Obama visits as sign of hope

AP News
Posted: May 05, 2011 7:39 PM
1st responders see Obama visits as sign of hope

As President Barack Obama visited with firefighters and police officers in New York City on Thursday, some saw a glimmer of hope that Osama bin Laden's death may help bring an end to the decade of war and grief that began on Sept. 11, 2001.

"Every day is a memory of that day," said detective Steven Stefanakos, who was among the officers Obama met on his way to a wreath-laying ceremony at ground zero. "The difference now is we have an end, which means we can have a new beginning, a chance to move forward past this."

The president's visit to New York _ part somber, part celebratory _ began with a stop at a Manhattan firehouse that suffered grave losses on 9/11.

If bin Laden's death has, indeed, made the world safer, officials still weren't taking any chances. Obama arrived under tight security at the midtown headquarters of Engine 54, Ladder 4 and Battalion 9.

Police cleared the streets of pedestrians and vehicles for several blocks and used bullhorns to instruct gawkers in nearby buildings to keep their windows closed. A phalanx of 10 heavy, sanitation department dump trucks loaded with salt formed a ring around the firehouse, ostensibly to protect against any car bomb attacks.

Once inside, Obama was met with another reminder of 9/11's heavy toll: Bronze memorial plaques hanging in the garage honor 15 members of the engine and ladder companies killed in the attacks _ one of the steepest losses of any firehouse in the city.

The president said he came to give thanks to the first responders who sacrificed so much on 9/11, and to pass along the message that the Navy SEALS who killed bin Laden did it, in part, in honor of the dead of the FDNY and NYPD.

"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," he said.

Yet the mood wasn't all serious.

Obama spent 50 minutes in the building, joking with the crew, talking sports, and sharing a meal of eggplant parmesan, mesclun salad and a shrimp and scallops dish.

"It was a wonderful gesture," Chief of Department Edward Kilduff said after the visit by Obama and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who led the city at the time of the attacks.

Firefighter Joseph Ceravolo, who cooked the meal, said bin Laden's death was a "bittersweet" victory for a department that lost so much in the terror attacks. He said he was grateful for a chance to thank the president and the armed forces.

Firefighter John Fila, who survived the 9/11 attacks, said bin Laden's capture had, at last, brought "a little bit of relief" but was tempered with the knowledge that the conflict is probably far from over, and it may only be a matter of time before someone stepped in to fill the terrorist's shoes.

Despite the heavy security, about 100 onlookers were allowed to wait a half block away for the president, and the crowd was joyful. One woman waved an American flag and a T-shirt reading "Obama Got Osama."

Elizabeth Feudale, 28, of Matawan, NJ, brought her 3-year-old daughter to see the president at what she hoped was a historic moment.

"I think, I hope, it's the beginning of the end," she said.

Her companion, Neil Kriegstein, 50, added that the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria only added to his hope that something was changing in the Islamic world that would bring bin Laden's era to an end.

"We know so little, but it could be July 4, 1776, for those people," he said.

Afterward, Obama stopped at Manhattan's First Precinct stationhouse, whose officers were among the first wave of responders to reach the World Trade Center on 9/11.

About 60 officers from the precinct and the NYPD's elite Emergency Services Unit assembled to meet the president. Lt. Frank Barberio, a commander in the unit, said the visit was a treat.

"He had no prepared speech. It was clear he just wanted to come and personally thank us. It meant a lot," he said.

"It was closure for a lot of these people, it was a relief," said the precinct commander, Capt. Edward Winski.

Hundreds of people who turned out in hopes of catching a glimpse of Obama were almost all disappointed. He appeared only a few moments in public, standing on a sidewalk outside the firehouse to wave at people in nearby buildings.

Most weren't too surprised. Tighter security, after all, is now a way of life in New York _ even with bin Laden dead.

"I don't think it's ever going to be the end," said Anne Schwartz, 55, of Brooklyn. "But it has been a good week."