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Friday, 21 September, 2001, 10:46 GMT 11:46 UK
A warm New York welcome
Clinton and Blair at NY fire station
Bill Clinton points out "ground zero" to Cherie Blair
By BBC News Online's Ryan Dilley in New York

New York's World Trade Center was aptly named. Few nations are not awaiting news of their own citizens still missing beneath its wreckage.

The UK is no exception, and the arrival of Prime Minister Tony Blair in the city has been warmly welcomed as a symbol of support by British ex-pats, ordinary New Yorkers and the rescuers still working furiously at the disaster scene.

We share our profound sympathy with the people of New York - a great many British people are missing as well

Tony Blair
"The British! Yeah, you guys were the first to stand up and support us. Your prime minister... what's the guy's name?"

The group of New York State Troopers guarding a rescue centre soon decide that he is "Tony Blair".

In the days since 11 September, the Labour leader has become better known in the supposedly insulated United States than many Britons might expect.

Winning praise

The New York Times has praised his "assuredness" in "keeping Britain the most reliable ally of the US".

Tony Blair and Rudolph Giuliani
New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani with Tony Blair
The Washington Post rated him alongside New York Mayor Giuliani as "the only other political figure who broke through the world's stunned disbelief".

"He told Americans they are not alone, that the decent people of the world make common cause against terrorism," said the paper.

The firefighters of New York's Engine Company Eight are no strangers to British politics. Their fire house is a block from the British Consulate and they have answered several emergency calls there.

Giving thanks

On Thursday they were preparing for a visit by Tony Blair, to offer his condolences for the 10 men from the station consumed in the collapse of the twin towers and to thank the fire crews for their continuing efforts to search for survivors.

Cherie Blair at fire station
Cherie Blair thanked those searching "ground zero"
The pavement in front of the station is impassable, thickly strewn with bouquets of flowers and candles left in tribute to the missing.

Like so many of his colleagues, firefighter Darren Harkins's eyes are red-rimmed.

"I know Britain is being very supportive. It helps us a lot at this very difficult time, and I want the people there to know that we are grateful."

Still in 'rescue mode'

The station's two mighty fire engines burst into life. Prime ministerial visit or not, the men of Company Eight dash to answer an emergency call, sending press photographers and TV vans scurrying.

It's important for all world leaders to show sympathy, but we have a special bond with the UK

Judy Boorman
Left in the exhaust wake of the vehicles, is the station's security officer. Despite being a veteran of the Korean War, even he has put in many hours at "ground zero" - his small frame allowing him access to narrow voids in the debris his colleagues cannot enter.

"It's great that someone from so far away would care and be concerned about us," he said.

Heavy rain falls outside.

"It rained like this last Thursday," says the security officer. "We were scared people trapped in spaces underground would drown. We're still in rescue mode down there. People aren't deceased, we're looking for them."

Tony Blair in New York
Tony Blair shared his grief at the prayer service
At the station office, people queue to make donations to disaster fund beneath the Stars and Stripes and a Union Flag.

Judy Boorman hands over her cheque. "I'm delighted the PM's coming," she says.

"It's important for all world leaders to show sympathy, but we have a special bond with the UK which is now stronger than ever."

Whirlwind tour

Christine Grenning, a British ex-pat has come to the station for the Blairs' visit.

"It makes me feel better to know he's coming here. There have been fears that our countries are not as close as they used to be, but now I'm more reassured."

Mrs Blair just wanted to express her condolences - you could tell she was genuine about it

Firefighter Tom Woods
The engines return from their call, with only moments to spare. Jumping down from the cab, the crews struggle to remove their protective clothing.

"Make yourselves presentable," the captain says as one firefighter lines up their helmets across the roof of his engine to greet the PM.

But as schedules run tight on the whirlwind diplomacy tour, the prime minister is forced to forego the visit in order to attend a memorial service for British victims.

A line of several hundred Britons snakes down the steps of Saint Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue.

Black umbrellas do little to shelter those waiting from the now driving rain.

Prayers for the missing

Almost every person wears a badge showing the cross flags of the US and UK. The British National Anthem rings out from the belfry.

Slowly, and under the gaze of Secret Service agents, the crowd is allowed into the Anglian church.

Grieving families at prayer service
Many British families lost loved ones in the attacks
As the last pews in the massive church are filled, Tony and Cherie Blair make their way down the aisle under the watchful gaze of St George - and a vanquished dragon - carved onto the church's wall.

Several in the congregation cry as Mr Blair stands to give his reading.

After the service, as the prime minister heads on to talks in Washington with President George W Bush, Cherie Blair stays behind to honour the promised visit to the fire station.

Mrs Blair and Bill Clinton meet the firefighters and families of the missing men.

Firefighter Tom Woods says their effort was appreciated.

"Mrs Blair just wanted to express her condolences, her eyes were welled up - you could tell she was genuine about it," he says.

"For us it wasn't just a photo opportunity - this was somebody coming to express sympathy."

See also:

20 Sep 01 | Europe
Blair confident on coalition
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