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Hundreds light candles in Astoria Park for 9/11

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Before the sun went down, the river-hugging Shore Boulevard was crowded and the mood still buoyant, bolstered by a big band...

By Dustin Brown

A few minutes before 8 p.m. Sunday, Astoria Park was still alive with the sounds of a boisterous weekend slowly drawing to an end.

Before the sun went down, the river-hugging Shore Boulevard was crowded and the mood still buoyant, bolstered by a big band that rolled out one patriotic favorite after another.

But by the time the sky went dark, the spirit had softened into something more reverent.

Hundreds stood on Shore Boulevard to remember and honor the victims of Sept. 11, 2001 in a candlelight vigil and interfaith prayer service, but they also had another goal in mind: “To celebrate that which made us such a target — our diversity and our tolerance,” as state Assemblyman Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria), one of the event’s sponsors, put it in his opening remarks.

They were commemorating a somber anniversary but doing it with hope.

More than 500 gathered around the World War I memorial facing the East River, where a small group of religious leaders, elected officials, uniformed personnel and families of Sept. 11 victims led them in prayer and offered words of thanks. The crowd sang in wobbly unison as Joe Battaglia and the New York Big Band played “America the Beautiful,” then joined in a low hum to reinforce the Corrections Department fife and drum corps’ rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

They stood in the shadow of the Triborough Bridge on one side and the Hellgate Bridge on the other, with a clear view of Manhattan’s Upper East Side as their backdrop. The vigil was co-sponsored by the United Community Civic Association, and Farenga and Sons Funeral Home provided every participant with a long, white candle.

The flame was passed from victims’ family members on the stage across the entire crowd, until the dim yellow light of the street lamps overhead was augmented by the deeper orange of burning wicks illuminating people’s faces.

“May we always remember that these lights are lights of hope,” said Maureen Santora, the mother of Firefighter Christopher Santora, an Astoria resident who perished in the rescue.

Many of those who spoke simply used the dais to express their appreciation for the help the community has provided over the past year.

“I’d like to thank Astoria and all of New York City for your strong show of support and solidarity,” said Capt. David Barrere, the commanding officer of the 114th Precinct, which covers Astoria and Long Island City.

“The people in this community have really proven to everyone that the words ‘United We Stand’ are not just another hollow phrase,” said Warren Kroeppel, the general manager at LaGuardia Airport.

The people who gathered with candles in hand said they simply wanted to stand with the community and the country.

“It’s good to see America united,” said Jenell Ellison, 12, of Brooklyn. “I like to see everybody of all races and everything just unite as one.”

“I think better days are coming. Everybody’s gotta stick together,” said Astoria resident Cecelia Rutkowski, 74, whose late husband was a survivor of Pearl Harbor. “America’s strong — don’t step on us.”

Even though a year has passed since Sept. 11, its impact was still strongly felt.

“I don’t want this to be just a memorial — I don’t want to put it in the past yet,” said Benjamin Zibit, 55, as his 3-year-old daughter Rebecca sat on his shoulders and bounced her unlit candle against his head. “I think it’s still very much with us, and things can happen again.”

For the families who lost loved ones that day, the vigil gave even further proof that they do not stand alone.

“The support is continuous. It hasn’t ended, it hasn’t lessened in any way,” Maureen Santora said following the ceremony. “We’re very lucky to live in such a phenomenal community.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

Posted 7:22 pm, October 10, 2011
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