The red-headed royal spent his first official visit planting a tree and paying tribute at Ground Zero

By Jill Smolowe Lesley Messer
May 29, 2009 03:30 PM
Chris Jackson/Getty

On his first official visit to the U.S., Prince Harry made Ground Zero his first stop. At the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan, he laid a wreath of peonies and roses, both yellow and white, with a handwritten note attached. “In respectful memory of those who lost their lives on Sept. 11, 2001, and in admiration of the courage shown by the people of this great city on that day,” it read. He signed it simply, “Harry.”

The 24-year-old prince then bowed his head for several minutes at a spot overlooking the memorial site. After paying his respects, he met with the families of four 9/11 victims and toured both the site and the local firehouse. As he studied the plans for rebuilding the site, he asked an official, “Big question, when is this supposed to be finished?”

On a tight schedule during his two-day visit, the prince then departed to cries of “Bye, Harry!” from passersby and continued on to Hanover Square to plant a magnolia tree in the newly-dedicated British Garden. “I’m very happy to be in this beautiful garden in the heart of N.Y.C.,” he told the crowd. “My family is so proud to be so closely associated with [the garden].”

As he piled dirt on the tree’s roots, he laughed good-naturedly at the photographers who were angling for the best shot. When he turned his rear to the British press, he quipped, “You’ve got the best view!”

Asked by PEOPLE as he exited the garden how he liked New York, Harry, accustomed to London rain, replied, “It s beautiful! The sun’s shining!” When another reporter asked if he’d return to the city, he said, “I hope so!”

Before retreating to nearby India House for a private reception, Harry stopped to talk to onlookers. “I was awestruck,” Nancy George said of her brief chat with the prince. “I always knew he was personable because of his mom but I didn’t expect him to be so open and forward. He’s very likable, very personable.”

“He seemed like such a normal guy, very friendly very gracious,” said Maura Sayers, who helped draw his attention by waving a British flag. “He definitely has his mother’s charm.”

On U.S. soil for the first time since he was a child, Harry is in town to play in the Veuve Clicquot Manhattan Polo Classic on Governor s Island. His goal is to raise money for Sentebale, the charity he co-founded to help the people of the impoverished southern African nation of Lesotho.