Waving American flags and carrying signs reading "God Bless America," an estimated 50,000 people squeezed into a bunting-draped Niagara Square on Sunday for a day of remembrance and a candlelight vigil for the victims of last week's terrorist attacks.
Under clear blue skies, almost hauntingly like those in New York City on Tuesday when the World Trade Center was attacked, Western New Yorkers poured into the gathering place where they've come to greet presidents and console one another over heartbreaking Super Bowl and Stanley Cup losses.
The square was so tightly packed that many families stood with their candles and flags in the intersecting streets.
David Gray of Buffalo, who was there with 11 other family members, said, "We just couldn't sit home and watch this on TV anymore. We wanted to do something to feel like we were making an impact. Many of us gave blood. (The vigil) was a chance to be part of something big."
It was big -- bigger than the 15,000 to 30,000 people that organizers had hoped for.
Not since John F. Kennedy drew 100,000 to Niagara Square on Oct. 13, 1962, has there been a bigger crowd standing in front of City Hall, a two-story-high flag hanging in its center, bunting draping its columns.
They heard patriotic music, John Philip Sousa marches and enough versions of "God Bless America" to warm even the late Kate Smith's heart.
They heard preachers raising the roof, others urging calm, and a Muslim cleric, Imam Fajri Ansari, who drew cheers when he said the Muslim community was as sickened and saddened by the attacks as anyone.
They shouted "U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A.," between speakers and cheered those who advocated swift retaliation.
"We are ready and willing to go to war right now," Col. Wade Farris, commander of the Air Reserve's 914th Airlift Wing, said to a roar from many in the crowd.
The Rev. Ann Salmon, pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church in West Seneca, warned that "somehow we must avoid the temptation to act with more hatred and violence."
Those in the crowd, who lit candles as the sky darkened, came for a variety of reasons.
"I'm here because I'm an American, a Native American," said Edward Jefferson, a retiree from Buffalo, a new tattoo of a Seneca warrior on his bicep. "I'm here to support my country."
Gary Hoover came with his wife, Jill, and their two young daughters, Brittany, 8, and Jessica, 10, both with hand-painted American flags on their faces.
"I just wanted to mourn the loss," said Hoover. "I just feel so sad about everything."
Others echoed that desire for a shared sense of unity and participation.
"It has been six days of watching TV and crying," said Diane Hamberger. "We wanted to do something to help, but there was nothing we could do."
She came with seven other family members, mainly daughters and sisters. They were holding a homemade banner they had made after dinner that read, "United We Stand; Divided We Fall."
"We felt the best thing we could do is show we are part of the community, that we support this country," Hamberger said.
Chester and Mary Jones of Buffalo attended in matching outfits of red, white and blue.
"We want to show our solidarity to do whatever it takes to eliminate terrorism," said Chester, a Vietnam War veteran.
His wife, an after-school program coordinator for the YWCA, said she's heartsick over the many children who lost a parent in the disaster.
She and her colleagues spent time the past week talking to the children in their program about what happened and the terrible images many of them saw on television, and that Arabs are our friends and neighbors.
That point was on the minds of the many Arab-Americans who gathered in Niagara Square.
"What happened was terrorism to us also," said Sabah Albofradi, vice president of the Iraqi House of Buffalo.
There are about 1,200 Iraqis in the Buffalo area, and the organization brought about 200 members to the vigil.
They held banners that condemned the attacks and that reflected their allegiance to the U.S., including one that read, "God Bless America."
"We live in America. We are one nation, one community," Albofradi said. "We love the freedom of this country. We love the flag. We cried, too, when we heard the news."
Bishop Henry J. Mansell of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo set the tone for the vigil when he recalled how on Tuesday, "suddenly the face of evil was unmasked."
"Our hearts were pierced," he said. "We experienced unspoken sadness and grief."
Mayor Anthony M. Masiello, whose staff and that of County Executive Joel Giambra's began planning the vigil within 24 hours of the attacks, recalled how his parents' generation won World War II.
Our children and grandchildren, Masiello said, will remember the current generation as those who defeated terrorism.
Giambra recalled how those who had struck against America before had suffered, and predicted the same would happen again.
"We are a people of great and unmatched valor," he said.
Fire trucks from 42 local companies ringed Niagara Square, each with American flags and God Bless America signs on their windshields.
Hundreds of firefighters wore small decals bearing the initials NYFD on their hats, remembering the almost 300 fellow firefighters whose lives are feared lost.
"I decided to make them up," said William Trimper, chief of the Sheridan Park Volunteer Fire Company. "I gave out about 1,600 of them."
Bernie Misiura and his family drove to the vigil in a car they decked out with 73 flags. They included the U.S. flag, and the flags of the U.S. states and territories, as well as the flags of all the Canadian provinces. "We're devastated by the loss," said Misiura, also a member of the Sheridan Park company.
The choir from Buffalo's Academy of the Visual and Performing Arts, at times joined by performers from O'Connell and Company, led the audience in patriotic sing-alongs.
But perhaps the most touching melody was the Gordon Highlanders performing "Amazing Grace."
At the program's close, Brian Freeman of St. John Baptist Church blew a solemn taps on his trumpet, followed by one last version of "God Bless America" that many sang as they left.
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