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GIANT QUILT BLANKETING NATIONAL MALL KEEPS ALIVE AWARENESS OF AIDS TOLL

The oddly colorful swatches of cloth, each about the size of a human grave, stretched for 10 city blocks in front of Joanne Urtel and for two blocks behind her.

"See those behind me?" asked Mrs. Urtel of North Tonawanda. "Those are just the panels that have been added since my son died" about a year ago.

And yet this massive display, which filled the mile-long National Mall on Saturday, memorialized a mere 12 percent of the people who have died of AIDS in America. If every victim had a panel in the AIDS Memorial Quilt, it would take up 100 city blocks.

For that reason, this weekend's display is not only the first for the full quilt in four years, but it also might be the last. "There's no more room," said Cleve Jones, founder of the NAMES project, the San Francisco group that began stitching together the quilt.

Some 750,000 people were expected to view the huge memorial this weekend. At least 80 people from the Buffalo area made the trip, and many vowed to keep on reminding the people back home that the AIDS epidemic is by no means over.

"Just look at this and you can see the enormity of great lives lost -- straight people, gay people, children," Mrs. Urtel said.

Mrs. Urtel's son, Robert Eric, was a gay man who graduated from Grand Island High School in 1979 and left the Buffalo area shortly thereafter, eventually moving to Portland, Ore., to work as a waiter. But he remained close to his parents and siblings, who traveled to Washington to see the quilt.

Robert's quilt panel is really 18 small panels, each made by a special friend or relative, each reflecting a special memory.

One panel shows the ruby slippers that Judy Garland wore in "The Wizard of Oz." "Robert just loved that movie," his mother said. "We'd watch that movie together every year when he was growing up. Now I watch it with tears in my eyes."

Robert's partner, Frank Garoutte, made a panel filled with photos of the couple climbing mountains and laughing at parties. But the central photo shows Robert's ashes being deposited in the Pacific Ocean.

"Our relationship was the highlight of my life, and will probably always be," Garoutte said. "For a long time after he died, I kept waiting for a normal day, a day when I didn't think about it, but it never happens. I think of him every day, and now I'm glad. It keeps me in touch with him."

For Marilyn Siminske-Dapp of Kenmore, the quilt offers a connection to her brother, John Siminske, who died in 1994. She brushed back tears as she looked down at her brother's panel, which features a rainbow, a teddy bear, and a portrait.

She said she hopes the quilt can teach more people about a disease that too many would rather ignore. "People are actually afraid," she said. "I told the kids in the religious-education class that I teach that I was coming to see the AIDS quilt, and one of the little boys said: 'Could I catch it?' "

Busloads of students from Hamburg Senior High School and Canisius College, plus about 40 other Buffalo-area volunteers, traveled to Washington to help with the display, said Jeffrey McConnell, a Canisius professor who heads the NAMES Project Buffalo. Many had heart-wrenching stories of their own to tell.

"I found out that one of my friends is HIV-positive, so I thought I'd better come; I thought I'd better prepare myself," said Jenna McGowan, a 17-year-old senior at Hamburg.

Maria C. Wichlac's volunteer duties included stitching a new panel onto the quilt. And even though the 19-year-old sophomore at Canisius didn't know the man she was honoring, she ended up in tears.

"I hope I never have to bring in another panel, but I probably will," she said.

The mall was eerily silent during much of the display, despite huge crowds that gathered to see the 38,000 panels, which honor more than 70,000 dead. Several dozen panels honored victims from Western New York, where, according to the State Health Department, 922 people had died of AIDS as of the end of February.

Mrs. Urtel offered an explanation for the silence.

"President Clinton talks about building a bridge to the future," she said. "Well, we'll cross it with the crosses we're bearing."

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