Praying and partying as New Yorkers flock to 'sacred ground'

View from Ground Zero

In the crush at what is still Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, Jonathan Simmons was almost imperceptibly singing America's national anthem. With hundreds of mostly young men scrumming about him bellowing chants of "U-S-A" and "Obama got Osama", he did not expect anyone among the living to hear him.

"I am paying my respects," said Mr Simmons, 53, a limousine chauffeur who had just driven to New York with a client from Boston and would be returning shortly to take his children to school before breakfast. "There is a sense of celebration I see, but I feel like we are freeing the spirits of those who died here to a better place."

They had begun streaming here minutes after news broke that Osama bin Laden, the emblem of evil to so many Americans, had at last been dispatched. Some had on military uniforms, waved signs thanking Barack Obama or wore stars-and-stripes glasses. Crowds also grew in Times Square and outside the White House in Washington. They wanted to cheer or pray or just to be part of one of those moments history would not forget.

"I'm proud of my country," Mr Simmons said. "Even if a job takes a long time to get done we will always stay with it." Was he afraid that that al-Qa'ida would react by striking the US again? "I am also begging them to come out, because we are ready for them and they sure as hell can't hide," he said.

Young men straddled the long steel arms of traffic signs to conduct the crowds below in reciting the "Pledge of Allegiance". Toilet rolls flew through the air, made bright by the naked lights on the still-open floors of One World Trade, the replacement to the Twin Towers that has now risen to half of what will be its eventual height.

It was rowdy patriotism verging on delirium: the chest-beating was similar to that coming from a football stadium when the home team has just won.

Beer bottles rolled underfoot and Kevin Kirby, 23, who had come from the Upper West Side, found himself suddenly offended. "A woman just flashed her breasts," he said. "I don't really feel comfortable with this. This is sacred ground and I came here tonight to pray." But most at Ground Zero had no such qualms.

"They should have brought Bin Laden's body here and hung it from a lamppost," said Steven Reginella, 52, who was working nearby on 11 September 2001 and saw the second plane strike and the workers jumping from the burning towers. "In fact, they should have roasted him here like a chicken so he would have seen what it felt like."

Nicholas Occhuito, 25, had a US flag with the peace sign stitched where the stars would normally be around his shoulders. "This was the defining thing for us as we grew into adulthood and this gives us a closure," he said. "Bin Laden's death is a book-end."