BUSH GIULIANI PATAKI

Then-Gov. George Pataki, right, greets President George W. Bush as he consoles then-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani shortly after 9/11.

A decade later, the encounter still is fresh in George Pataki's mind.

Just hours after the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the governor was walking the streets of Manhattan doing his best to console a city in shock.

"I'll just never forget one obviously homeless gentleman coming up and giving me a hug, and me telling him, ‘We'll get through this,' and his saying, ‘Thank you, I'm sure we will,'" Pataki said in a recent telephone interview.

Pataki served three terms as New York governor and was the state's chief executive when the planes hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

He said one of the things that has changed since 9/11 is a deterioration in the sense of unity Americans felt in the days and weeks after the terrorist attacks.

"That to me is the most important challenge that we face as a country today, and the most important lesson of Sept. 11 is that regardless of the magnitude of the catastrophe or challenges we face at the time, that when we stand as Americans, we can overcome them," he said. "And it's important that we recapture that as we look to the future."

Pataki, a Republican who recently decided not to run for president in 2012, said the sense of unity is still there to some degree, but not as strong as it was just after 9/11.

"And I fear now that in Washington and among too many political people that there is this terrible partisan divide that prevents us from having the intelligent solutions to the very real problems facing our country today," said Pataki, the honorary chairman of No American Debt, a political education and advocacy organization.

"But I'm still a believer in the people," Pataki continued. "I'm still a believer in the greatness of this country, and I think that with the right vision and leadership, there's no real reason that we can't recapture that sense of unity."

Perhaps the same sense of unity will be felt as the nation recovers from the devastation of Hurricane Irene, he said.

"People have lost a great deal. Your heart goes out for them," he said, referring those affected by the recent storm. "But I just pray that we'll have the same sense of unity in helping those who have suffered so much and allow them to get back on their feet and rebuild their lives."

Pataki said that when he thinks about Sept. 11, he feels a tremendous sense of loss for those who died and for their families, and yet also feels a sense of pride for the way people in the state and nation responded to the tragedy.

"I think I will always have those two elements, those two competing emotions whenever I think about it," he said.

Pataki said he was in New York City the day the terrorists attacked the World Trade Center.

"And my daughter had called after the first plane hit, and I was on the phone with her," he said. "And then I saw the second plane hit and knew right away that we were being attacked and I started to take action."

On the 10th anniversary, Pataki will participate in the dedication of the National September 11 Memorial at the former World Trade Center site in Manhattan.

Pataki is honorary chairman of the memorial's board of directors.

He said he's proud that the memorial is opening.

"It is something that I thought from the beginning had to be the cornerstone of all that we did at Ground Zero, so that people would not just once a year think back to September 11th, but every day people from around the country and around the world would have a chance to visit the site and understand the magnitude of the loss and yet at the same time understand the courage and strength that New Yorkers responded with," he said.

"I think it will be the most visited site in North America, and they will say that we did it right," he said.

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