Crowds, Chaos and Some Closure at Ground Zero

Photograph by Lauren Fleishman for TIME
Lauren Fleishman for TIME
A crowd gathered at New York's Ground Zero right after Obama's speech announcing the death of Osama Bin Laden on May 1, 2011. Revelers in the crowd scrambled up light poles over the cheering crowd.

There was perhaps no place more fitting to go than the place where it all began. As President Obama wrapped up his remarks, confirming the death of Public Enemy No. 1, Osama bin Laden, a few people started to gather at New York City’s Ground Zero. They kept coming. By the time a man shinnied up a lamppost around midnight and sprayed bottles of champagne over the crowd, several hundred people had gathered.

The word for the night was “closure”. It sprung from the lips of almost every person who went to the hallowed ground of the World Trade Center to mark an end of sorts to the U.S.’s most painful open wound. While capturing bin Laden likely won’t change much of the operations of al-Qaeda, tonight, that didn’t matter. What mattered was the people who gathered to celebrate the conquering of the person who killed many of this city’s loved ones.

As everyone knows, in America, when the words are slow to come, the booze pours freely. This colorful crowd, American flags draped around their necks, sang the national anthem, “God Bless the U.S.A.” and  “America, the Beautiful” in spurts of unison. They chanted “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!,” “Yes, we can!” (the slogan of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign) and “Hey, hey, hey, goodbye.” “This is New York — this what we do,” said Sonam Velani, a 23-year-old who lives just a few blocks from the site of the 9/11 WTC attack. “We come together to celebrate these things — even at two in the morning.”

One man, wearing what can only be described as stunner shades, clad in an American flag hat and T-shirt, broadcast “Born in the U.S.A.” on a makeshift boom box he held high above his head. Another man scrambled up a pole to address the crowd. “I have something to say. You see what the enemy can do,” he said, gesturing at the empty hole where the Twin Towers once stood. “We will go further.”

As the hours ticked by, the usual antics were to be expected. There were the sellers hawking American flags for $5 a pop, the trampled cardboard cases of Keystone Light (evidence of the drunken college kids who stumbled around looking for more) and the few who took things a little too far, climbing things not meant to be climbed. But in looking for the quieter ones, the people standing solemnly at the back of the crowd, it was easy to spot those who had journeyed to Ground Zero not for a boisterous celebration but to reflect on the magnitude of the night.

Among them was Mickey Carroll, a 29-year-old firefighter from Staten Island who lost his father, also a firefighter, on 9/11. He couldn’t quite sum up the emotions he felt. “It’s hard to explain. I feel anxious. I feel excited,” he said. “This is something that this country [EM] these families, my family [EM] has been waiting for for so long.”

Jamie Roman, a 17-year-old from Astoria, Queens, who came to Ground Zero with her mother, echoed that sentiment. Holding a T-shirt tightly to her chest, she fought tears as she remembered the man it memorialized. She spoke of Christopher Santora, a close family friend who, at 23, was the youngest firefighter to lose his life in the attacks.  “This is a little bit of closure,” she said. “We finally have some peace in our lives.”

By Kayla Webley, with reporting by Paul Moakley

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