Fifteen thousand folks turn out to wave flags along Tampa Bay before a deluge. One says the weather is a good reminder that this is not a joyous time.
By BABITA PERSAUD, GRAHAM BRINK and BILL DURYEA
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 12, 2002
TAMPA -- All night, Bill Hamblin made flags, 386 of them. He cut plastic pipe for flag staffs until his hands blistered. All the while he prayed that people who would wave them when the sun rose would do it for the right reason.
"It was my dream to line Bayshore with flags," said Hamblin, a Vietnam veteran. "I hope everyone takes this for a memorial and not a celebration."
Hamblin is one of the Bayshore Patriots, the group of two dozen people who for the last year have come to Bayshore Boulevard every week to wave flags during rush hour. In March, the Patriots began to think about an event for the first anniversary of Sept. 11 that would magnify their effect a thousand-fold.
Flags Along the Bayshore, they called it.
Wednesday morning, an estimated 15,000 people responded to their call.
They began to arrive in the humid predawn, mindful of rain in the forecast but determined to achieve the Patriots' dream. If it was not always the entirely solemn event that Hamblin had hoped for -- there were festive touches, a man dressed as Uncle Sam, a girl in a Statue of Liberty costume and at least one ballplayer signing autographs -- it was passionate.
The rain came as predicted, but not before a nearly seamless line of patriotism along Bayshore's 4.5 miles had been achieved.
Some came with big flags fixed to poles. Others went for quantity over size. Barry Hauseman and his two daughters, Amy and Jessica, had nine small flags. They attached two to Amy's stroller, two to Jessica's hat and two to Charlie the family retriever's collar, and carried one each for waving.
"We had this planned for a while," Hauseman said.
Those who didn't plan so well reaped the benefit of Hamblin's efforts.
About 7:30 a.m., a golf cart bearing water and flags puttered up the south end of Bayshore. The driver called out to a young woman on the sidewalk, one of the few people who didn't have a flag of her own.
"Do you need a flag?" asked Eileen Leary, 50, a volunteer.
"Yes," said Melissa Williams, a U.S. Army captain stationed at MacDill Air Force Base. "What should I do when it's over?"
"Just take it home and wave it," Leary said.
Four hundred students from Plant High School walked 1.3 miles from their campus to the center of the action at Bay-to-Bay Boulevard. They chanted, "U.S.A. U.S.A."
Single runners, trotting in the middle of a road that is usually clogged with commuter traffic, made quieter statements.
"A fit America is a strong America," said Jan Moody, relaxing briefly from her 8-minute-per-mile pace.
Just before 8 a.m., the announcer's voice rumbling from the speakers along the route drew the crowd to semi-attention at the curb.
Sam Hakki, president of the Islamic Education Center of Tampa, offered the first words of the morning.
"A great evil has been committed against America. That hideous crime was committed by someone named Osama bin Laden. . . . He is no more a Muslim than Timothy McVeigh was a Christian. . . . These people have nothing to do with religion. Terrorism and evil have nothing to do with God."
Simultaneous processions -- police and firefighters from the north end of Bayshore and military from the south -- began to roll toward the center at Bay-to-Bay. Some in the crowd waved while others saluted. Some remained perfectly still, respectful of the idea that this was not a celebratory parade, an early morning Gasparilla in red, white and blue.
Still, it wasn't completely somber.
Troops standing in the backs of open Humvees cheered the crowd that was cheering them.
"Love the hat," yelled one soldier to Linda Taylor, a member of the Out to Lunch women's barbershop quartet, all of whom had come to the event dressed in floppy red and white striped hats that made them look like patriotic Cats in the Hat.
The drumbeat of a timpani at the end of The Star-Spangled Banner signaled a turning point in the event. A dark line of storm clouds that had followed the procession north on Bayshore began to pour rain.
"These are our colors, and even in the rain these colors don't run," said Julie Whitney, one of the original Bayshore Patriots.
Bob Hite, the WFLA-TV anchor who was one of the event's announcers, wiped his notes and declared a 15-minute delay.
People already were running for shelter.
Eight guys from Durant took off their shirts and chanted, "America! America!"
"Those firefighters didn't take a break that night," said 17-year-old Luke Figlewski.
Clothes were soaked through in a matter of minutes. Some people hung out under the eaves of the big homes along Bayshore Boulevard. Others called it a day.
Paul Kroger said he wasn't going anywhere.
We won't give ground, he said, his white shirt drenched through. But 20 minutes later, even Kroger was gone.
The north side of Bayshore Boulevard flooded under 8 inches of water a few blocks in each direction from Delaware Avenue.
A handful of people came running from the cover of trees about 9:15 a.m. when they heard four F-16 jets roar overhead.
Melissa Hanson, 27, and her father, Chuck Masters, 55, were among the few hearty souls who stayed after the last crackly words had been heard from the sound system.
"I'm glad it's miserable," said Masters, an oil ship captain in Equatorial Guinea. "It's not a joyous time. It's good to remember that we're vulnerable and we need to pull together so it doesn't happen again."
At 9:30 a.m., the program resumed, though few who were more than a block from the central grandstand were aware of it. The sound system had long since died.
Gov. Jeb Bush had to leave before his speech. He made his way through the crowd, offering apologies.
Gen. Tommy Franks remained to the end. It was nearly 9:50 a.m. and the rain was still heavy.
"It's a treat for me during the course of this rain-enhanced remembrance to recognize what resolve is," he said, "to recognize what my mother and father used to call stick-to-it-ness."
Right about then, Mary and Roz Stowe from Riverview were huddled under the tent of a water station near Waverly Avenue, wondering when the excitement was going to start again.
"The rain is the Lord's way of showing us how many tears fell in New York last year," Mary Stowe, 47, said.
They were joking about ordering a pizza when two workers showed up to take down the tent.