NEW YORK -- Marking Osama bin Laden's death where the terrorist inflicted his greatest damage, President Barack Obama somberly laid a wreath Thursday at New York's ground zero and declared, "When we say we will never forget, we mean what we say."

The president closed his eyes and clasped his hands at the outdoor memorial where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once dominated the Manhattan skyline. He shook hands with family members of the Sept. 11 victims at the site where the skyscrapers were brought down by planes commandeered by bin Laden's followers. Nearly 3,000 people were killed.

The ceremony has special meaning for Connecticut residents. A total of 152 people with ties to the state died in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Earlier, the president visited the firefighters and police officers whose response to the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, turned them into heroes and symbols of national resolve, but also cost them heavy casualties on that horrific day.

Months before the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, and days after bin Laden was killed in Pakistan by U.S. commandos, Obama's visit was giving New York its own moment of justice.

The president was accompanied by elected officials from the New York area, including Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. Obama also laid a wreath at the foot of the Survivor Tree, which sustained damage during the attack but was freed from the rubble.

Visiting ground zero for the first time in about seven years, Malloy marveled at the site's transformation.

"It's amazing how much progress is being made," Malloy told Hearst Connecticut Newspapers in an exclusive interview.

The last time Malloy was here was in his capacity as Stamford mayor, when he visited one of the bond rating agencies to discuss the city's credit rating.

Malloy was mayor of Stamford during the attacks, which took a heavy toll on the city. Nine residents and four other people with close ties to the city perished.

"Governor Malloy is appreciative that President Obama invited him to the wreath-laying ceremony at ground zero, and he is going there to represent the people in Connecticut who died on 9/11, as well as their family members and loved ones," said Colleen Flanagan, a spokeswoman for the governor.

In addition to the wreath-placement ceremony, political dignitaries led by the president are scheduled to meet with select families of the Sept. 11 victims and first responders.

Mary Fetchet, founder of the New Canaan-based Voices of 911 group, was also expected attend the event, the first public ceremony Obama has presided over since the president announced late Sunday night that Navy SEALs had led a raid that killed al-Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden at his compound in Pakistan.

Malloy exchanged passing pleasantries with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, with whom he has exchanged barbs on taxes and job retention.

The two shook hands but kept their distance.

Asked what his counterpart had to say to him, Malloy grinned sheepishly.

"It's always good to see him," Malloy said.

Among those invited to the tribute by the White House was U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., whose hometown of Greenwich lost 14 residents and 12 others with community ties.

But Blumenthal will miss the event to attend a mobilization ceremony for his son, Matthew, 25, a 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve who is deploying to Afghanistan, according to an aide to the senator.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.