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For the comfort of being together, 2,500 gather

By DIANE STEINLE

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 23, 2001


It was the largest outdoor gathering I have witnessed in Pinellas County that didn't have entertainment as its focus.

It was the largest outdoor gathering I have witnessed in Pinellas County that didn't have entertainment as its focus.

The candlelight vigil that the city of Largo held Thursday night was simply an opportunity for people to gather in remembrance of those who died in the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks and to demonstrate their unity as Americans.

There were no celebrities, no fireworks, no orchestral fanfares. But more than 2,500 people came, streaming from satellite parking lots into Largo Central Park to the plaintive sounds of bagpipes.

Those who came early saw a beautiful sunset with pinks and golds and slashes of aqua. But the sky soon darkened, and still more people came. Guided only by luminarias and tiny American flags that lined the park's sidewalks, they walked toward the one pool of light in the big park: a flag-draped outdoor stage.

Some carried flags or wore patriotic T-shirts. Many held their babies or their children's hands. Some helped elderly relatives through the darkness. They sat in lawn chairs or on the damp ground and waited.

Largo Mayor Bob Jackson stood on the stage looking out at a sea of upturned faces and spoke about his search for something meaningful to read. He finally settled on Psalms 27:

"The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? . . . Though an army should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war should rise against me, even in this will I be confident . . ."

I had never seen a crowd as still, as quiet, as this one at that moment.

Prayers were offered up by various speakers, along with the Pledge of Allegiance, the national anthem, Taps and Amazing Grace. The St. Paul United Methodist Church choir sang Let There Be Peace on Earth and a song called Eagles' Wings: "He will raise you up on eagles' wings . . . and hold you in the palm of his hand."

Largo police Chief Lester Aradi and fire Chief Caroll Williams spoke in memory of the public servants who died in New York on Sept. 11, and when Williams read the Firefighter's Prayer, in which a firefighter asks God for strength to save lives, it was a moment that was undeniably moving.

Former Largo City Commissioner Jim Miles, who spent 32 years in the military, was applauded when he spoke of the need to prove "that those that attacked us have got a tiger by the tail."

Throughout the one-hour vigil, children and adults found their way to a booth where they could write messages on a paper scroll that will be sent to the rescuers working in the wreckage of the World Trade Center. Some just wrote "Thank you." Others had more to say:

"Not a soul shall die in vain or be forgotten. God bless you all. God bless America." -- Kathleen Auger, Largo.

"My heart is breaking with you, New York." -- Victoria Stern, Seminole.

"Bless the millyons hwo have died and pleas send them to heven." -- Katie.

And someone wrote in purple block letters on the white paper:

"We

Will

Not

Forget"

The crowd sang America's new anthem, God Bless America, to close the vigil. And when the people stood up and held their lighted candles aloft, it looked like a sea of stars twinkling in the darkness above their heads.

Two weeks ago, who could have envisioned such a thing? More than 2,500 men, women and children standing in the dark in a public park, not because there was anything for them to do there, not because there was anything for them to say, but just for the comfort of being together.

Though there were a few tears shed at the vigil, there was no massive outpouring of emotion, perhaps because the horrible events that led to the vigil were now 10 days distant. As I walked back to my car, I mulled over what words I could use to describe the mood of the crowd. "Calm" came to mind. "Resolute" was another. I was surprised when, a few minutes later, I heard President Bush, in his speech to Congress, urge the American people to be "calm and resolute" during this time. We have it right, I thought.

The idea for the city vigil came from Ron Poole, 60, who runs a frame shop in Largo. After the attacks on New York and Washington, his employees kept asking him, "What can we do?"

"I was thinking about how we're a close city -- we're all buddies in this town. I said, 'Why don't we have a little vigil? That way everybody could feel like they did something," Poole said.

He mentioned his idea to Chief Aradi, who mentioned it to other city officials, who made it happen. And the "little vigil" grew, attracting people from all parts of North Pinellas.

Poole said he was happy as he walked around the park Thursday night because "everybody was there . . . and they walked away feeling super." He was especially glad that so many children came and seemed to understand the gravity of the moment.

"The kids felt like they had done something. They felt good holding a candle," he said. "And they'll remember that. They'll look back and say, 'Oh yes, I was there.' "

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