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On dreary day, Bush lifts rescuers' spirits

©New York Times

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 15, 2001

NEW YORK -- After leading the nation in a day of prayer and mourning at the National Cathedral in Washington, President Bush arrived in New York City and received an emotional reception from rescue workers at the site of the devastated World Trade Center.

NEW YORK -- After leading the nation in a day of prayer and mourning at the National Cathedral in Washington, President Bush arrived in New York City and received an emotional reception from rescue workers at the site of the devastated World Trade Center.

The president took a short helicopter tour of the area Friday and then walked between the piles of rubble, looking at ease as he talked with firefighters, police officers and volunteers.

To insistent chants of "USA! USA!" from the crowds of workers, Bush took hold of a bullhorn and climbed atop a small pile of rubble. Shouting over a chorus of cheers, he said he wanted the rescuers to know that all America was deeply grateful for their efforts.

"This nation stands with the good people of New York City, and New Jersey and Connecticut, and we mourn the loss of thousands of our citizens," he said.

To cries of "George, we can't hear you!" the president replied: "I can hear you! I can hear you!"

"The rest of the world hears you," he said. "And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!"

That last remark was greeted by louder and louder cheers. And as he tried to continue he was repeatedly interrupted by more chants of "USA! USA!"

"You can't imagine what this means to people," said Richard Lufkin, a volunteer. "Just his presence gives folks a little lift."

Bush later met at the Javits Convention Center with 200 family members of firefighters and police officers killed when the towers crumbled.

The work at ground zero -- the enormous mass of wreckage created when the two skyscrapers crumbled -- was complicated Friday by a ferocious overnight downpour that turned dust into mud and made even the simplest tasks more difficult and dangerous.

"The debris is slippery. Everyone is soaked to the skin. We need coffee," said firefighter Patrick Bahnken. "But as long as you have hope you have something to go on. It's been almost spiritual to see so many people joined in a common cause."

Later Friday, in a remarkable sign of the city's collective grief, thousands of New Yorkers carried lighted candles in poignant evening tribute to those killed. Responding to a suggestion that was spread mostly on the Internet, people walked the streets and clustered together on street corners with their tiny flames dipping and flickering.

Earlier, Bush's visit to the World Trade Center site boosted morale, but the grim reality was that for a second straight day, no survivors were found in the debris. Gusty winds made it impossible for the roughly 300 dogs brought in to search for bodies to pick up any scents.

Five people have been pulled alive from the wreckage. At least 5,000 people are thought to be missing.

New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani asked for caution after a flurry of misleading reports on people rescued from the debris. Those included a report late Thursday that a woman had spoken on a cell phone with what she said were 10 or 15 people trapped in the north tower. The woman's claim turned out to be false, but was reported on local and national television.

And, for the first time since the tragedy, the mayor said a handful of looters had slipped into the banned area of Manhattan below 14th Street. One man was arrested carrying $3,000 in watches from a Tourneau store.

Friday's rain gave rise to another concern: rotting corpses, which could be a source of infectious diseases.

Health officials say that blood-borne pathogens such as hepatitis and HIV are the primary concerns for rescue workers. But there are fears that radiation devices may be in the rubble.

City health workers, along with newly arrived Centers for Disease Control scientists, said they are monitoring hospitals for unusual disease trends.

"We are most concerned about those brave souls who have to be down there 24 hours a day, in rescue operations, and will be for weeks to come," Dr. Marcelle Layton said Friday. "We are starting today to set up a special surveillance to look at diseases in those (rescue) groups."

So far, those workers have hauled out 10,425 tons, or 1,154 truckloads of debris in what Giuliani called a monumental task.

Giuliani accompanied Bush on his visit Friday, as did Gov. George Pataki and a number of congressional delegates from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut that included New York's two Democratic senators, Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The president arrived from Washington in midafternoon aboard Air Force One at McGuire Air Force base, in Pemberton, N.J., about 60 miles from New York. He was escorted by Air Force fighter jets. He was then taken by Marine One helicopter to Lower Manhattan, where he flew over the site of the collapsed twin towers to witness the magnitude of the destruction.

"It's hard to describe what it's like to see the gnarled steel and broken glass, twists of buildings silhouetted against the smoke," Bush said.

- Information from Cox Newspapers, Associated Press, Knight Ridder Newspapers and Newsday was used in this report.

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