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Protesters' hope faded as Schiavo neared end

But death doesn't bring the drama to a conclusion for some of the people who held a vigil outside the Pinellas Park hospice.

By TAMARA LUSH, TOM ZUCCO and LAUREN BAYNE ANDERSON
Published April 1, 2005


PINELLAS PARK - Hope faded as the dawn came Thursday to Hospice House Woodside.

Those who had kept vigil outside the hospice were tired and dirty - and facing reality. This would almost certainly be the day that Terri Schiavo would die.

They resumed their protests halfheartedly, waving signs in front of TV cameras for the morning shows. A few read Bibles. Someone forced a mournful noise out of a ram's horn instrument.

At 9:48 a.m., Brother Paul O'Donnell delivered the news: "It is with great sadness that it's been reported to us that Terri Schiavo has passed away."

Impromptu masses sprang up in the roped-off protest zones. Someone had erected a makeshift altar, with three giant depictions of Jesus Christ and one photo of Terri, in front of the hospice. A bottle of sunscreen and a candle sat on a table, and two planters of sagging lilies stood at each side.

"Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for our sins," mourners chanted, "now and in the hour of our death."

A TV producer walked by, a walkie-talkie pressed to his mouth. "Okay, we got another little prayer gathering over here," he said, heading toward another spot.

* * *

At 10:33 a.m. a man played a jaunty and familiar tune on his bugle. Folks sang along.

"He's got the whole world, IN HIS HANDS," they sang. The refrain changed.

"He's got Terri Schindler, IN HIS HANDS ..."

* * *

Midmorning, Paul Fratianni took his big sign that said "America - Home of the Free and Brave????" and, taking a black felt tip pen, scrawled, "Battle Lost - War Not Over."

"This is indeed a culture war," said Fratianni. "A war between those who value life and those who do not value life."

Fratianni, 35, of Bloomington, Ind., owns a health food store. He said that he will miss the camaraderie of the Pinellas Park crowd, the ones who stood vigil for Terri. He's collected phone numbers and e-mails, in hopes of keeping in touch.

* * *

Greg and Toni Whittaker from White Post, Va., and their 12 children arrived in Pinellas Park on Wednesday. Thursday morning, they attended mass at a local Catholic church and went to breakfast.

By the time they arrived at the hospice, Schiavo was dead.

The Whittaker children - aged 2 to 21 - began to pray.

"We hope that somehow, this will focus our country on the value of life," said Greg Whittaker, a systems engineer. "I think the law has gone amok."

* * *

Cliff Reichenberger, a mechanic who works across the street from the hospice, had enough of the Schiavo saga long before she took her last breath.

"This is all a bunch a ... I don't know," he sighed.

He looked skyward, where three TV news helicopters hovered.

"Waste of fuel," Reichenberger muttered.

He thinks Schiavo should have gone to her parents' home to die.

Like many people who work at the tiny businesses near the hospice, Reichenberger is glad everyone - the media, the robed monks, the protesters and their bugles - were leaving.

"It's way too much," he said. "Everybody should just go home and relax."

* * *

Monsignor Thaddeus Malanowski conducted yet another Mass as the noon sun reached its peak.

More than 50 protesters kneeled, recited prayers, cried and sang Ave Maria. Malanowski walked through the crowd offering the communion host, which Catholics believe is the body of Christ.

David Vogel, who had been at the hospice for three weeks and was arrested once for protesting, played his guitar.

Malanowski tried to comfort the crowd by telling them Schiavo entered into "eternal happiness."

* * *

Jean Raleigh was drawn to the hospice in the afternoon.

The 20-year-old University of Florida junior grew up near the hospice and couldn't help but visit.

But she was disappointed by the turnout. On TV, she said, it appears as though there are hundreds rallying to save Schiavo. Thursday, in the hours before her death, there were maybe 20 protesters outside.

"The media's definitely the biggest force here," Raleigh said. "The prolife numbers aren't as big as they've been alluding to."

* * *

Gwen Smerekar, mother of a Pinellas Park police officer, went to the hospice to take photos of her son. Smerekar, 63, supported Michael Schiavo.

"That was his wife," she said. "He was very supportive for her all the way. The family gave her up when he married her."

When asked if she was taking the photos to remember this day, she shook her head.

"Remember? No. I want to forget it," said Smerekar. "I hope everybody else will forget it too. I hope it doesn't go on after today. Forget about it, let it go."

* * *

On Thursday, more and more white plastic garbage bags lined the orange barriers of the protest areas as Schindler supporters through their signs away and returned to their lives.

But some protesters said they would wait for Schiavo to rise from the dead, RikkQ Morris among them.

"Have you heard of Lazarus?" asked the Tennessee man, referring to the Bible story about the man Jesus raised from the dead.

"I think definitely on Sunday she'll rise," Morris said. "There will be several of us who will be remaining for several days."

* * *

Times staff writers Curtis Krueger, Leanora Lapeter and Jade Jackson Lloyd contributed to this report.