NEW YORK—There were no bagpipes, no choirs and no speeches. There was mostly silence as President Barack Obama laid a wreath Thursday at Ground Zero in his first visit to the site as commander-in-chief, four days after Osama bin Laden’s death, to commemorate the 9/11 victims.
Mr. Obama spent most of his 20-minute visit quietly talking with families of victims of the terrorist attacks, in an event that mixed somber emotion with a few smiles.
“We never forget,” he told family members as he shook hands and offered hugs. Nearby was the “survivor tree,” a Callery pear tree from the World Trade Center site that withstood the falling debris, was nursed back to health and replanted at the site.
For the White House, the event required a careful balance—marking the death of the most-wanted terrorist without appearing gleeful, and recognizing the loss of life on 9/11 without appearing to politicize the families’ pain.
Mr. Obama has highlighted the bin Laden killing at a stream of events—in televised remarks to the nation Sunday, at a dinner for congressional leaders Monday and at Ground Zero Thursday. On Friday, he will speak to U.S. troops who have returned from Afghanistan to Fort Campbell in Kentucky, and meet with some of the special operations commandos who raided the compound in Pakistan where bin Laden was hiding.
At a stop at a firehouse before the memorial, Mr. Obama emphasized American unity. “Our commitment to making sure that justice is done is something that transcended politics, transcended party,” he said at the Pride of Midtown Firehouse, which lost 15 men on the day of the attacks.
He later spent about an hour meeting privately with about 50 family members of the victims, to whom he said the mission in Pakistan was “not for us, but for you,” recounted Christie Coombs from Abington, Mass., whose husband, Jeff, died aboard American Airlines Flight 11, one of the four hijacked planes.
Near Ground Zero, Germano Riviera, a 59-year-old jeweler who was under the South Tower when it collapsed, held a giant American flag adorned with the names of the victims. He wept for joy when he learned the U.S. military killed bin Laden, he said. “It’s not closure,” he said. “There is never going to be closure.”
At the World Trade Center site, where nearly 3,000 died, Mr. Obama offered no public comments. He carried the wreath with the help of fire Lt. Joe Lapointe, who used the moment to thank the president for “getting the job done.”
The president lingered in conversation with Christopher Cannizzaro, 10 years old, whose father, Brian, a firefighter, was killed that day. Mr. Obama touched the boy’s necklace, which held a photo of his father. “He wanted to know what happened to my dad,” said Christopher, who was 10 months old the day of the attacks.
Mr. Obama also talked for a while with 14-year-old Payton Wall. She had written him a letter about her father, Glen James Wall, who was killed in the attacks. The letter was among several given to Mr. Obama by his staff to read Monday, and after he read it, he had her invited to attend Thursday’s ceremony.
Payton said she and Mr. Obama talked about how she had originally written the letter for singer Justin Bieber, hoping to meet him. But she decided on a whim to revise it and send it to the White House, even though her sister teased that the president would never read it.
“I wrote to Obama about how Justin Bieber inspired me to tell my story,” Payton explained. Mr. Obama promised to pull some strings to make sure she meets Mr. Bieber the next time the singer is in town.
—Michael Howard Saul and Devlin Barrett contributed
to this article.