WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush on Friday honored 442 firefighters, police officers and other rescuers who died Sept. 11, awarding posthumous Medals of Valor to their families at a White House ceremony.

“A proud America will always stand in the shadow of their service and sacrifice,” Bush told a crowd of some 1,200 friends and family members who wore cards with the names of their lost loved ones.

In the crowd, Dena Smagala smiled and videotaped the president’s speech as her 3-year-old daughter Alexa, wearing red, white and blue ribbons in her hair, played barefoot in the grass of the south lawn of the White House.

Smagala was five months pregnant with Alexa when her husband, Stanley Smagala, a firefighter in Brooklyn, died responding to the World Trade Center.

“This means everything – everything that my husband stood for and worked for, and it will mean more to my daughter when she’s old enough to understand, because she never knew him,” said Smagala.

The 9/11 Heroes Medal of Valor was created by Congress, and those in attendance Friday included Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, and New York congressmen Joseph Crowley, Vito Fossella and Peter King.

Crowley had pushed hard for the Sept. 11 medals, citing the loss of his firefighter cousin, John Moran.

Bush told the families that the valiant response to Sept. 11 was being repeated again in the Gulf Coast, where rescuers from all over the country have rushed to help victims of Hurricane Katrina.

“When America has been challenged there have always been citizens willing to step forward and risk their lives for the rest of us. Over the last 11 days in Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama, we have again seen acts of great compassion and extraordinary bravery from America’s first responders,” Bush said to loud and sustained applause.

The White House has faced a barrage of criticism over the slow pace of the federal government’s response to Katrina, and Bush spoke shortly before authorities announced the head of relief efforts there was being called back to Washington.

For the Sept. 11 families, the ceremony was an emotional and inspiring reminder of their loved ones’ final moments helping others.

Arlene Howard, mother of Port Authority Police Officer George Howard, said she was “very honored, because my son saved a lot of lives, and he wasn’t even working that day. He was off, and he rushed in from home to help.”

Another Sept. 11 mother, Muriel Keating, wept as Bush kissed and hugged her after the ceremony.

“This medal means he will always be in our memory, that he did something wonderful,” she said of her firefighter son, Paul Keating.

Congress bestows the Medal of Honor on public safety officers.

When hijacked planes struck the World Trade Center, men and women with badges of all types responded immediately.

The Sept. 11, 2001 attacks killed 343 members of the Fire Department of New York, 50 Port Authority police officers and assistants, 23 New York Police Department officers, three state court officers, and members of the Secret Service, the FBI, and private ambulance workers.

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