NEW YORK — President Bush yesterday led the nation in silent remembrances for the almost 3,000 victims of the September 11 attacks, hugging family members and standing solemnly for each moment of silence at the three sites where terrorists crashed four hijacked planes that sunny Tuesday morning five years ago.
After the stops in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia, the president addressed the nation last night, reminding Americans that ever since the worst terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, the United States has been at war in “a struggle for civilization.”
“America did not ask for this war, and every American wishes it were over. So do I. But the war is not over, and it will not be over until either we or the extremists emerge victorious,” Mr. Bush said. “We are in a war that will set the course for this new century and determine the destiny of millions across the world.”
With midterm congressional elections less than two months away and Democrats charging that Mr. Bush is politicizing the fifth anniversary of September 11, the president urged unity and condemned partisan politics.
“Our nation has endured trials, and we face a difficult road ahead. Winning this war will require the determined efforts of a unified country,” he said. “So we must put aside our differences and work together to meet the test that history has given us.”
At New York’s ground zero, a solemn hush fell over the chasm where the Twin Towers once stood. Thousands of people bowed their heads at 8:46 a.m. to mark the time a plane hijacked by al Qaeda militants slammed into the first tower of the World Trade Center.
Seven stories down in the gaping hole where the 110-story skyscrapers once towered over Lower Manhattan, family members who had come to lay roses in a makeshift reflecting pool fell silent again at 9:03 a.m., when the second tower was struck. Twice more, to mark the moments when each tower collapsed, those in the 16-acre pit fell silent.
“Five years from the date of the attack that changed our world, we’ve come back to remember the valor of those we lost, those who innocently went to work that day and the brave souls who went in after them,” said Rudolph W. Giuliani, New York’s mayor during the attacks.
In Virginia, at an early morning Pentagon ceremony to honor the 184 persons killed there, Vice President Dick Cheney also urged Americans to stay united and persevere in the global battle against terror and the war in Iraq.
“In the conduct of this war, the world has seen the best that is in our country,” Mr. Cheney said. “We will never forget the day the war began, or the way the war began. Our thoughts remain with the victims of 9/11.”
In Shanksville, Pa., on a windswept hillside in a cold drizzle, the president laid a wreath on the spot where United Flight 93 crashed after passengers battled hijackers, whose intentions were likely to strike the U.S. Capitol or White House. He and first lady Laura Bush bowed their heads during a prayer and the singing of “Amazing Grace.” Nearby, bells tolled in memory of the 40 victims, and afterward, the president shook hands with each family member.
“One moment, ordinary citizens, and the next, heroes forever,” retired Gen. Tommy Franks said. “We mourn their loss, to be sure, but we also celebrate their victory here in the first battle on terrorism.”
The president said the passengers aboard Flight 93 “gave America our first victory in the war on terror.”
But ground zero, virtually unchanged since the first anniversary, remained the focal point of the commemorations. Thousands of family members and friends of victims descended a long ramp to the bottom of the rubble-strewn pit, where they floated roses into the pool and wrote messages on surrounding wooden planks.
Above the hole, the husbands, wives and other loved ones of those who perished read the names of all who perished there in an emotional three-hour reading.
“If I could build a staircase to heaven, I would, just so I could quickly run up there to have you back in my arms,” said Carmen Suarez, wife of police officer Ramon Suarez, who was killed after he rushed into one of the towers.
The president began his day with a breakfast with New York firefighters and police officers, a day after he and the first lady laid a wreath in both ground zero reflecting pools in the footprints of the North and South towers.
“It’s hard not to think about the people who lost their lives on September the 11th, 2001. You know, you see the relatives of those who still grieve. — I just wish there were some way we could make them whole,” he said Sunday.
In his speech last night, the president framed the war on terror within the September 11 anniversary and said Americans have renewed their faith because of the devastating attacks.
“The attacks were meant to bring us to our knees, and they did — but not in the way the terrorists intended. Americans united in prayer, came to the aid of neighbors in need, and resolved that our enemies would not have the last word. The spirit of our people is the source of America’s strength,” he said.
The day was emotional for the nation’s top leaders, with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld recalling the attacks, and the price paid by the military.
“The highest tribute we can pay to them is to commit ourselves to doing everything possible to fight the extremists wherever they are, to making every effort to stay united as a country and to give our truly outstanding men and women in uniform all they need to succeed,” he said.
The ceremonies looked toward the future. Organizers hope to raise $30 million in private funding to build a permanent memorial on a 1,700-acre site in Shanksville; the total cost is estimated to be $58 million. Congress has passed the Flight 93 Memorial.
At ground zero, construction has begun on a September 11 memorial and the 1,776-foot Freedom Tower, which is expected to be finished in five years.
Supporters are still seeking funds for a $22 million memorial park at the Pentagon. Its completion date has been moved back to 2008.