Residents gather to heal, remember
By KELLEY BENHAM, ED QUIOCO and CHRIS TISCH
As one official said in a speech, the rain was fitting because America was crying. But Wednesday's wet weather did little to dampen North Pinellas events organized to recall the nation's losses a year ago.
Tarpon Springs remembered Sept. 11 with a ceremony at Craig Park with police, firefighters and elected officials; speeches, poems and songs; and 125 squirmy fifth-graders out of school for a history lesson.
For the grownups, it was a way to acknowledge memories that hadn't really faded. For the kids, it was a reminder of a day they won't really understand for a long time.
"I wish we didn't have to do this," Mayor Frank DiDonato said. "But we are doing it, and I'm proud that we are."
The fifth-graders did not grasp the solemnity of the occasion right away. They giggled during the prayer. They jumped when the Tarpon Springs High School band began to play. They got confused during the flag salute.
They didn't notice that around them, grownups were quiet. They didn't notice the woman sitting behind them, wiping her eyes and rocking her blond baby girl.
But as the ceremony went on, the words seemed to take hold. The fifth-graders grew quiet. They listened more closely. Commissioner Beverley Billiris, a former teacher, spoke directly to them.
"There are different kinds of heroes," she said. "They don't all play football or basketball. They wore different kinds of uniforms. Some wore a three-piece suit or a flannel shirt."
In Palm Harbor, Tampa Road from U.S. 19 to McMullen-Booth Road was cloaked in red, white and blue as hundreds gathered to wave flags at passing traffic.
"It's a little nicer to do this and come out here than to sit inside glued to the TV all day," said Doyle Ranes, 79, a Palm Harbor resident who was a Marine staff sergeant during World War II. "You actually share with other people."
Heather Tankersley of Palm Harbor painted for free glittery American flags, hearts and stars on people's faces. Tankersley, 31, paints faces at clubs, private parties and the Pier in St. Petersburg, and she decided to bring her paints with her Wednesday.
"I haven't really paid any tribute to all those people who died yet, so it was a good opportunity for me to give something back," she said. "It's important to acknowledge the catastrophe that took place because I think it affected everybody."
When administrators at Marriott Startford Court senior living community were planning something for Sept. 11, residents told them they "needed to feel that they could still come out and celebrate and help people heal," general manager Jane Donohue said.
"They didn't want something that was somber," she said. "They wanted to celebrate the fact that we live in a country with all of our freedoms."
In Clearwater, there were mourning bagpipes, crisply pressed uniforms and severe salutes. There was a sob-choked speech from a New York City firefighter, followed by a sad song and a wave crash of sniffles.
There was an invocation, a Scripture reading, a moment of silence. Then a video memorial, a litany of remembrance and another moment of silence. Three standing ovations. Taps. More bagpipes.
Hundreds of people walked out of the Service of Remembrance in Clearwater's Harborview Center with tears streaking their cheeks.
Ten New York City firefighters attended the service. They stood in a line afterward, clasping hands with hundreds of people, their eyes red and noses wet, who lined up to meet and thank them.
The firefighters' journey here began a year before, when five Safety Harbor firefighters headed to New York City to help with the cleanup and to attend memorial services for firefighters killed in the terrorist attacks. The New York firefighters, most of whom were in the second wave of rescuers, invited the Safety Harbor visitors to their firehouse for a lunch of homemade onion soup and sausage and peppers.
"They hung our jackets on the rungs of their firehouse right next to theirs," said David Pacheco, a Safety Harbor fire inspector.
Days later, the Safety Harbor crew was helping out at Ground Zero. Again, they ran into that firehouse crew.
Friendships formed. The New York group started making trips to Pinellas County for rest and peace. The Safety Harbor crew traveled to New York to march alongside their friends in the St. Patrick's Day Parade.
When Safety Harbor firefighters learned of a memorial service in Clearwater to commemorate Sept. 11, they called their friends in New York. Ten agreed to come.
Fire, police, rescue and the military were represented at the service, sponsored by the Pinellas County Fire Chief's Association and the Emergency Service Chaplains of Pinellas County.
"We are here today to remember our fallen brothers," said Lt. Brian Grisanti, who served on Engine 160 and lost 11 men in his firehouse. "We were all there that day. We did not all return."
Words became difficult.
Fellow firefighter Greg Sclafani stepped forward and put his left hand on Grisanti's right shoulder. Grisanti swallowed hard and continued his speech. Sclafani followed.
"We're only here as representatives of those heroes, because the heroes are no longer with us," he said. "God needed them upstairs for other things."
Grisanti retired in December; Sclafani, two months ago.
"It just wasn't fun anymore," Grisanti, a 20-year department veteran, said. "In every firefighter is a little kid. There's a story of a little kid telling his dad he wants to grow up and be a firefighter. And the dad tells him, well, you can't do both."
The New York firefighters were noticeably moved during the service, particularly by Last Call, a song about cell phone calls made by people who perished in the disaster.
"It put me right there," said Sclafani, who spent three months picking up human remains at Ground Zero. "It was like I could feel my footsteps. I had a feeling of myself walking that day. It makes it seem like yesterday or only hours ago. It's very emotional."
As the crowd of well-wishers dwindled Wednesday, smiles began to return to the New York firefighters' faces. Walking toward the exit, one said, "It's time to smile. We've cried enough. It's time to smile."
In East Lake, a lanky young man circulated through the crowd at the YMCA of North Pinellas, listening, watching and taking pictures.
A year ago, Michael Dominik, 21, watched as the second plane hit the World Trade Center from the newsroom of Tagblatt in Neumarkt, Germany, a local edition of the newspaper Mittelbayerisch.
Dominick, who is staying with relatives in Palm Harbor, was covering the American observance of Sept. 11 for the Neumarkt paper.
"You really saw that they are proud of their country," he said. "You really could feel that they are more united than before Sept. 11 and that they stand together."
-- Staff writer Theresa Blackwell contributed to this report.
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