The pope yesterday stood face to face with the remains of the worst terrorist act ever committed on U.S. soil, kneeling in prayer and sprinkling holy water during an intimate ceremony at the base of the void where the World Trade Center once stood.
"O God of love, compassion and healing, look on us, people of many different faiths and traditions, who gather today at this site, the scene of incredible violence and pain," Pope Benedict XVI said. "We ask you in your goodness to give eternal light and peace to all who died here."
The pope had yet to travel to his biggest event, a Mass at Yankee Stadium, but in many ways his 30-minute visit to Ground Zero yesterday morning was the culmination of a trip that emphasized healing and humanity in the United States and around the world.
During his brief visit to the site, 24 victims' relatives, survivors and first responders selected by lottery from more than 1,100 nominations got to greet the pontiff and speak briefly with him. Afterward, they received crosses from metal recovered at Ground Zero and candles in white boxes.
FDNY Chief of Department Sal Cassano was among them. "God bless you, and God bless the department," he saidthe pontiff told him. And in reply: "I thanked him for being here and thanked him for blessing the sacred ground because it is sacred ground," said Cassano. "The department still has 128 members that are missing that we haven't recovered yet, so it's important for us."
Winds gusted and a light mist fell during the ceremony, a contrast to the sunny weather that had marked the first two days of his trip to the city. The tips of cranes on the buildings around Ground Zero disappeared into the gray fog. Flags lining the ramp - representing the United States, Vatican, Archdiocese of New York, New York State, New Jersey, New York City and Port Authority - flapped vigorously.
Police - some in their dress uniforms with white gloves, others fully armed Emergency Service Unit officers in riot shields and bulletproof vests - roamed throughout the pit and around the perimeter. NYPD snipers were stationed on the upper decks of the World Financial Center across the street.
In preparation for the pope's visit, a stage was built at the base of the ramp leading to the pit of Ground Zero. A pale yellow carpet was laid out on top of the platform, which contained a pool filled with water, symbolizing purity, and gravel, symbolizing Ground Zero itself. In the water was a white and gold pedestal for an ivory-colored paschal, or Easter, candle, which represented resurrection, a Vatican spokesman said.
Outside, a few hundred people clustered around margins of the site, talking in hushed tones. Some had waited hours hoping to see the pope. Many clutched flowers or photos of loved ones; others held signs asking the pope to pray for them.
"It's absolutely wonderful to be here," said John Vassallo, 28, of East Islip, as he took out a rosary he purchased during a visit to the Vatican two years earlier. "It will make a lot of difference to many people that he is coming to pray at this site."
About an hour before the pope was due to arrive, those selected to meet him walked solemnly down the ramp, taking their places on the margins of the platform. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Gov. David A. Paterson and New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine arrived soon after, chatting in a corner of the stage.
The pope arrived at the entrance to Ground Zero in a limousine and there transferred to his Popemobile, which drove about two-thirds of the way down the ramp flanked by Secret Service agents. As a cellist played Bach, the pope then climbed down and walked the rest of the way beside Cardinal Edward Egan, the leader of the New York Archdiocese. When Benedict reached the stage, he knelt down and prayed for a full two minutes.
He then lit the candle and, using a silver wand known as an aspergillum, sprinkled holy water in four directions. He then read his prayer.
After the prayer, each of the 24 people invited to attend approached Benedict and was introduced by Egan, who explained to the pope who each was. One by one, they reached out, and many knelt and kissed his ring before speaking with him.
Eileen Lugano of Manhattan, whose son Sean, a broker at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, was killed in the attack, described her brief meeting with the pope. "When I got up to him you could see the love in his eyes. He responded to everything I said."
The FDNY's Cassano said he was struck by the intimacy of the ceremony, and couldn't believe the pope took the time to speak personally to everyone. When Egan introduced Jean Palombo, for instance, and told the pope her husband had died on Sept. 11 and that she has 10 children, he seemed "taken aback," Cassano said.
"I could see the look on the pope's face, 10 children, then he started talking to her, which was quite amazing. He took all the time, he took as much time as any individual wanted to speak."
"Everyone was just in awe and amazement at what had just happened," said Cassano. "None of us knew what to expect. None of us knew we were going to be able to talk to the pope."
Rose Mazza of Massapequa, who lost her Port Authority Police Officer daughter Kathy in the attacks, said she was grateful to the pope. "It was a historic event and we appreciate him coming," she said. "I feel more peaceful now than I've ever felt."
"This is sacred ground for New York. Of course to have the pope visit it was very special for all of us, not just people of the Catholic faith," said Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who was at Ground Zero but not on the platform. "I thought it was done with great dignity, and it had a very solemn feel to it, and I think that was very appropriate."
While many of those outside had waited hours for a glimpse of the pope, most saw only the very top of the Popemobile.
Still, for many, that was enough.
"He's the head of our church. It was probably as close as I'm going to get to him, but that's fine," said John Urban, 71, who left his home in Scranton, Pa., at 3:30 a.m. to stake out his spot on Church Street. "He was good enough to come to our country, so I thought I should come to show support."
Deborah S. Morris, Bill Murphy and Erik German contributed to this story.