In the days after Sept. 11, a president hoisted a bullhorn and raised his voice in the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center to galvanize a nation. On Thursday, nearly a decade later, another president brought a wreath to ground zero and bowed his head in silence.
In between, so much had changed. The site is tree-lined and soon to be a memorial to the thousands who died. The attention of Americans drifted away from this crime scene, to the wars being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, to a world where terrorism is a fearful fact of life.
But then came word of Osama bin Laden's demise at the hands of Navy SEALs. And Barack Obama, the president who inherited this painful legacy from George W. Bush, was moved to close the circle, to visit ground zero for the first time as president.
This was not a victory lap. There was little flag waving, few chants of "USA! USA!" Obama made no public remarks; he met privately with firefighters and police officers and family of the dead. The atmosphere was more somber than celebratory, a day devoted to honoring the living, not exulting over the buried-at-sea corpse of a terrorist mastermind.
Still, there was an unmistakable sense of joy in the lower Manhattan crowds. "Obama's brought us back to ground zero, but in a good way," said Steven Hamilton, a 47-year-old New Yorker. "This is a good day for him to come out to show that he is tough, that he is our commander in chief, and that we are safer because Osama is out of the picture."
More than anything else, there was an oft-expressed hope that a painful chapter in the nation's history may finally be coming to a close.
"Every day is a memory of that day," said Detective Steven Stefanakos, among the officers who met Obama on the way to the ceremony. "The difference now is we have an end, which means we can have a new beginning, a chance to move forward past this."
Obama began the day at Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9, a Manhattan firehouse that lost 15 firefighters on 9/11, more than any other in the city.
"When we say we will never forget, we mean what we say," Obama said there. America would not forget any of it: not the deaths of helpless civilians, not the heroism of police and firefighters. And not the crimes that spurred a 10-year manhunt for the man who sent two planes crashing into the World Trade Center and others into the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Pa.
The president saw the bronze plaques with the names of the companies' fallen. But he shared a hearty firehouse meal (eggplant parmesan, mesclun salad, a shrimp-and-scallops dish), joked and talked sports.
From there, Obama dropped in on a police precinct and laid a wreath at ground zero in front of a "survivor tree" that somehow lived through the attacks. The ceremony was nearly silent and entirely nonpolitical; there were officials from both parties, and Rudolph Giuliani _ the Republican mayor whose stewardship during the dark days of September 2001 is legendary _ escorted Obama to the firehouse.
There were so many flashbacks. Every time Obama hugged a surviving spouse of one of the victims, it recalled the uncounted times when Giuliani and Bush did precisely the same thing.
And when Obama walked across the plaza, you could almost hear the echoes of George Bush shouting through the bullhorn: "The people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon."
The fulfillment of that vow _ the killing of bin Laden _ was the subtext for everything that happened Thursday.
"I haven't had much sleep since Sunday night. It's been a roller coaster, a lot of mixed emotions," said Alexander Santora, whose son Christopher, a firefighter, died in the attacks. "It's a win, but nothing is ever going to mend that hole in our heart. Nothing is ever going to bring these people back.
"But it certainly is much more fitting to have a joyful day than the day we had 10 years ago."
Associated Press writers David B. Caruso and Colleen Long contributed to this story.