By Julie Shapiro, Jill Colvin, Ben Fractenberg, Della Hasselle, Elizabeth Ladzinski, Tom Liddy and Adam Nichols
MANHATTAN — It was a silent statement that spoke louder than words.
President Obama paid homage to the nearly 3,000 lives lost at Ground Zero nearly 10 years ago, laying a simple wreath of red, white and blue flowers at the site of the worst terrorist attack in American history.
The somber commander in chief, days after announcing the death of Osama Bin Laden, looked straight ahead as he carried the wreath with a firefighter to a resting spot in between the two planned memorial pools, where the World Trade Center towers once stood.
Obama then bowed his head and paused for a moment of silence.
Afterwards, he shook hands with a number police officers and firefighters.
He then warmly greeted group of girls who lost their fathers on 9/11.
"I was practicing my handshake all day, but he gave me a hug," said an ecstatic Payton, of Rumson, NJ, whose father Glen, a partner at Cantor Fitzgerald, died in the attacks.
"He said he's proud of us," said Madison Robertson, 14, who lost her dad Don in the attacks.
Earlier in the day, Obama paid tribute to the first responders who died in the attacks.
He stopped by the 1st Precinct in TriBeCa, and a Midtown firehouse that lost 15 men - an entire shift - when the towers fell.
"Obvioulsy, you can't bring back the friends you lost," Obama told the firefighters.
But, he said, Osama bin Laden's death last Sunday sent a message.
"When we say we will never forget, we mean what we say," he told them. "You're always going to have a president and an administration who's got your back."
The president landed at the Wall Street heliport just after 11:00 a.m. Thursday, meeting former Mayor Rudy Giuliani before being driven to Midtown.
He spent lunchtime at Engine Co. 54's firehouse on Eighth Avenue at 48th Street - known as "The Pride of Midtown" — where he was fed eggplant parmesan, scalloped shrimp, sundried tomato and pasta and salad prepared by firefighters.
"We lost a whole shift," one of the firefighters told him.
Obama shook his head. "Unbelievable," he said.
Leonard Sieli, who spent his 19-year carrer at the firehouse, said that Obama fit right in.
“He was just like one of the guys. He was a fireman for the ten to 15 minutes, the half-hour he was here. It was really cool,” he said.
"He wanted to talk sports."
Sieli, 47, said that the pain of losing his brother firefighters on 9/11 stays with him.
“It’s a decade for people who weren’t here or didn’t live it that day. It’s everyday for me," he said.
Joseph Ceravolo, the firehouse's head cook, said:
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. It was really cool,” he said. “He loved the shrimp. He loved the eggplant parm,” he said of the president.
The president then traveled to the 1st precinct stationhouse in Tribeca, where he briefly met with some of the cops who were first responders on 9/11.
He told the officers that Osama Bin Laden's capture Sunday was a reminder of their sacrifice.
"It sent a signal around the world that we have never forgotten the extraordinary sacrifices that were made on September 11th," he said.
"We've never forgotten the courage that was shown by the NYPD, by the firefighters, by the first responders."
When the president, who signed the precinct's guest book, gathered with the officers to take a picture, one of the cops yelled out: "Go Bulls!"
The precinct's commanding officer, Capt. Edward Winski said Obama came by "to share appreciation for us and for us to share appreciation with him."
“We were very proud, very honored to have the president come to the First Precinct,” he added.
“A lot of the cops here at the First Precinct were working almost ten years ago on 9/11 and respond down to the Trade Center. A lot of the ESU cops standing behind me spent that day and countless days, weeks and months afterwards down there. It’s very significant [Obama visiting].”
Afterwards, Obama traveled to Ground Zero and the 9/11 Memorial Plaza for the silent ceremony.
"The power of that requires no words," said White House spokesman Jim Carney.
The wreath that the president placed at the site - made of white and blue hydrangeas, red roses and lemon leaves - was provided by Flowers of the World, which had a shop at 4 World Trade Center the day of the attacks.
Afterwards, the president met with the relatives whose lives were torn apart nearly 10 years ago.
"He just talked to the families," said State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who joined Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Andrew Cuomo, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and several other pols at the site. "He pointed specifically at the younger people and said, 'Follow in your familys’ footsteps in dedication to your country. That’s one of the lessons of 9/11.'”
Jennie Farrell, 49, said that the president visited with each of the 60 families individually at the 9/11 Memorial Preview Site on Vesey Street.
“It really brings us a lot of joy to tell the president of the United States about who we lost that day,” said Farrell, 49, whose brother, 26-year-old James Cartier, was killed while working as an electrician in the south tower on 9/11.
“He just came in and said how happy he was to be with us. [President Obama] walked around and had a quiet moment with everyone. He wanted to know about our loved ones.”
She said that the president put his arm around her and her brother, John Cartier, while they were standing next to James' old Harley, which was donated to the museum.
They showed Obama a picture of James and Obama remarked how handsome he was.
“It is something I’ll always remember. I think my brother James is smiling down from heaven.”
For some of the families who gathered at the site, Obama's order last Sunday that brought bin Laden to justice has helped ease their hurt.
"It's not closure," said Jim Riches, whose firefighter son, Jim Jr., died after rushing to the scene 10 years ago and who is among those invited to meet the president Thursday.
"It doesn't bring my son back, but it's a little bit of peace after 10 years."
The president's visit was not intended to be any type of victory lap, his spokesman said.
"He wants to meet (family members) and share with them this important and significant moment — a bittersweet moment, I think, for many families of the victims," said Carney.
"He thinks it’s appropriate to do that in private."
The Commander in Chief's last Ground Zero visit was as a presidential candidate on the 2008 anniversary of the attacks.
His visit comes a day after he decided not to release a photo of bin Laden's body, fearing it would put U.S. soldiers overseas at risk.
It also come a day after 9/11 Memorial officials announced they had finished the process of deciding where to place the names of nearly 3,000 victims in the shrine.
A website, http://names.911memorial.org, will help visitors locate each name.