Joyous Americans gather to mark bin Laden death

May 2, 2011 10:43:37 AM PDT
Joyous at the release of a decade's frustration, Americans streamed to the site of the World Trade Center, the gates of the White House and smaller but no less jubilant gatherings across the nation to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden - cheering, waving flags and belting the national anthem.

"I will never forget September 11th, and I will never forget May 1st, 2011," Corinne Nobili screamed, crying.

This time, the tears shed at Ground Zero were tears of joy.

After hearing news of Osama bin Laden's death, thousands headed to the site of his most deadly act of terror.

And a place that's been the scene of countless memorials and tributes for the past decade turned into a place of celebration and remembrance, with chants of "U.S.A.!" filling the air.

"To be down here right next to where that tragedy happened, it's very cathartic," one reveler said. "To be down here celebrating with everyone."

The crowd was packed with people waving flags and signs of victory for the nation. An American Airlines flight attendant who lost colleagues on 9/11, summed up his feelings with one word - justice.

For one group of veterans who served in Afghanistan, news of bin Laden's death was truly a mission accomplished. Although they said there's still work to be done.

"To all the families that lost somebody right here on Ground Zero, we never forgot," Purple Heart recepient Daniel Walton said. "And we will keep going out there, keep taking them out, just for you. We remember what those towers looked like when they fell. And we will never forget."

People also began pouring into Times Square as word of bin Laden's death spread. Hundreds celebrated late into the evening.

Tourists from around the world and New Yorkers cheered and waved flags as they watched the news on the giant screens.

Some FDNY firefighters from the Ninth Battalion joined the crowd, savoring a bittersweet moment of celebration mixed with the memory of the 343 fire fighters who gave their lives on 9/11.

"A lot of emotion," one firefighter said. "It's up and down, because we're very happy he's dead and we're bringing back 10 years of memories for these families who lost...a lot of empty chairs."

There was the acknowledgement of that tremendous loss and a sense of unity.

"You know, we're all in this together, and it's a real proud moment for the whole country," another added.

The firefighters felt especially grateful to the members of the special forces who carried out the mission.

"None of our Special Forces were hurt," one said. "[They're] invited back to New York City for a nice Fire Department meal in our kitchen and a very good night on the town."

"We've been waiting a long time for this day," Lisa Ramaci, a New Yorker whose husband was a freelance journalist killed in the Iraq war, said. "I think it's a relief for New York tonight just in the sense that we had this 10 years of frustration just building and building, wanting this guy dead, and now he is, and you can see how happy people are."

She was holding a flag and wearing a T-shirt depicting the twin towers and, in crosshairs, bin Laden. Nearby, a man held up a cardboard sign that said, "Obama 1, Osama 0."

In Washington, in front of the White House, a crowd began gathering before President Barack Obama addressed the nation late Sunday to declare, "Justice has been done." The throng grew, and within a half-hour had filled the street in front of the White House and begun spilling into Lafayette Park.

"It's not over, but it's one battle that's been won, and it's a big one," said Marlene English, who lives in Arlington, Va., and lobbies on defense issues. She said she has baked thousands of cookies to send to friends serving in Iraq and Afghanistan over the years and that she was at the White House because they couldn't be.

The celebrations began to come together late on Sunday night, after Americans began hearing about the death of bin Laden from bulletins on television, texts and calls from family and friends and posts on social networking sites.

Bin Laden was slain in his luxury hideout in Pakistan, early Monday local time and late Sunday night in the United States, in a firefight with American forces. Obama said no Americans had been harmed in the operation.

When news of the president's announcement began to filter across the country, the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies in the middle of a game in Philadelphia, and chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" began in the top of the ninth inning at Citizens Bank Park. Fans could be seen all over the stadium checking their phones and sharing the news.

The chant - "U-S-A! U-S-A!" echoed in Dearborn, Mich., a heavily Middle Eastern suburb of Detroit, where a small crowd gathered outside City Hall and waved American flags. Across town, some honked their car horns as they drove along the main street where most of the Arab-American restaurants and shops are located.

At the Arabica Cafe, big-screen TVs that normally show sports were all turned to news about bin Laden. The manager there, Mohamed Kobeissi, said it was finally justice for the victims.

There were smaller, spontaneous gatherings around the nation - a handful of Idahoans who made their way to the state Capitol in downtown Boise, a small group who waved flags and cheered on an Interstate 5 overpass south of Seattle known as Freedom Bridge.

People said they were surprised that bin Laden had finally been found and killed. John Gocio, a doctor from Arkansas who was gathering what details he could from TV screens at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, marveled: "After such a long time, you kind of give up and say, 'Well, that's never going to happen."'

The celebration in New York came precisely one year after a militant from Connecticut spread panic by driving a bomb-laden SUV into the heart of Times Square. As the most intense manhunt in history wore on, year after year after 9/11, the city dealt with smaller scares - the Times Square plot, subway and bridge threats, orange alerts.

"It's really a terrific day for not just America but for the world. To have this cancer pulled from us is the right thing," said Guy Madsen, 49, who drove to the city from Clifton, N.J., when he heard of bin Laden's death. "This is judgment day, and we're winning."

Several hours later, the first copies of Monday's Daily News hit the streets, with a big picture of bin Laden on the cover and the headline: "ROT IN HELL," with the last word in 4-inch-high type.

Over that same decade, the city has lived on with the pain from the day itself, more distant but never erased. Stephanie Zessos, who lives in the neighborhood and works for the fire department, said sadness also was mixed in with the late-night celebration.

"I texted a friend of mine who's a firefighter who lost a brother on 9/11, and he said the pain will never go away," she said.

Similarly, Gordon Felt, president of an organization for families of people who were on United Flight 93, which crashed into a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, called the announcement of bin Laden's death "important news for us, and for the world." He said in a statement that "It cannot ease our pain, or bring back our loved ones" but does bring "a measure of comfort."

Along with the outburst of joy over bin Laden's death, there was an increase in security - at least in New York, where authorities said there would be extra police at all three area airports "out of an abundance of caution." The Port Authority also said there would be more police along the George Washington Bridge and at ground zero.

But for the most part, as Sunday stretched into Monday, the nation stopped to reflect, and to rejoice.

With final exams looming, thousands of Penn State University students gathered in State College, Pa., the student newspaper reported. One was dressed as Captain America, fireworks were set off and colorful chants rose up from the crowd. At Ohio State University, some students, including the student body president, jumped into a lake on campus to celebrate, according to The Lantern newspaper.

At the White House, Will Ditto, a 25-year-old legislative aide, said he was getting ready to go to bed when his mother called him with the news. He decided to leave his home on Capitol Hill and join the crowd. As he rode the subway to the White House, he told fellow passengers the news.

"It's huge," he said. "It's a great day to be an American."

George Washington University student Alex Washofsky, 20, and his roommate Dan Fallon, 20, joined the crowd. Washofsky, a junior and a member of the Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps, recalled the day shortly after Sept. 11 when President George W. Bush evoked the phrase from "Wanted" posters in the old West, "dead or alive."

"And we did it," Washofsky said.

American flags of all sizes were held aloft, worn draped over the shoulders or gripped by many hands for a group wave. Some people climbed trees and lampposts to better display the flags they carried. Others without flags simply pumped their fists in the air.

The impromptu street party took on aspects of a pep rally at times. Some people offered up the "hey, hey, goodbye" singsong chant more typically used to send defeated teams off to their locker rooms. Parth Chauhan, a sophomore at George Washington University, trumpeted a World Cup-style vuvuzela.

Associated Press writers Cristian Salazar, Tom McElroy in New York City, Jessica Gresko in Washington, Jeannie Nuss in Chicago and Jeff Karoub in Dearborn, Mich., contributed to this report.