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Posted on Thu, Sep. 12, 2002

City says prayers for 9-11 victims

Sept. 11 observances draw on faith

By Laura Emerson
The Journal Gazette

Ayaz Malik stood before nearly 1,000 people in the Embassy Centre on Wednesday night, opened his mouth and sang Islam's traditional call to prayer.

"Allaahu Akbar, Allaahu Akbar . . . Ash hadu allaa ilaaha il Allah . . ."

The long, melodic tones echoed through the auditorium as Americans - citizens by birth as well as by choice - remembered the tragedy of the terrorist bombings of Sept. 11, 2001, with an interfaith service that sought to unite people through understanding.

Translated, the Islamic call to prayer means "God (Allah) is greatest. God is greatest. I bear witness that there is nothing worthy of worship but God," said Malik, dressed in a business suit.

The community ceremony, organized by the city of Fort Wayne's task force for interfaith understanding, was the largest in the city.

It contained two distinct parts. The first featured speeches and patriotic songs, much like others across the community and nation that took place during the day. The second was devoted to prayers for peace in the languages of seven faiths represented in Fort Wayne: Baha'i, Buddhist, Christian, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikh.

Members of several faiths said they were pleased by the presentation, although some said the program should have been shorter. It began about 6:15 p.m. and was still going at 8:15. A steady stream of people started slipping out the back doors at 7:30, although most stayed until the end.

Earlier Thursday, more than 300 people gathered outside Fire Station No. 1 in Fort Wayne for a memorial service highlighted by the tolling of a large bronze bell. In days gone by, a bell signaled the beginning of each day's firefighting shift and the end of each call.

Today, it's used as a symbol of honor and respect for those firefighters who have ended their duties forever. It is their last alarm before they go home.

As a Fort Wayne firefighter, Patrick Riley has attended countless memorial services since New York's World Trade Center collapsed into dust last year, killing thousands. So the ceremonies don't produce as many feelings as they once did.

But he still gets emotional at times, especially when the bell is tolled.

To commemorate the collapse of the first of the twin towers, firefighter Karen Wilkinson grasped a rope in her white-gloved hand and tolled the polished bronze bell five times.

Solemnly she paused, a bright red scarf at her neck standing in sharp contrast to her black uniform, and then she tolled it five times more. Another pause. Another five tolls.

As its sound faded, two bugles performed a mournful rendition of taps as the American flag was lowered to half-staff.

A red-haired woman's lower lip quivered. She sniffed , right hand still firmly pressed to her chest from hearing the national anthem a moment before. The mother of a homicide victim, Karla Nichter felt poignantly the pain of those who lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks.

At that moment, a single bagpipe began playing "Amazing Grace." The soloist was joined by other members of the Fort Wayne Fire Department's pipe and drum corps, which formed last year to perform at firefighter's funerals and events such as these.

After several speeches, the bell was tolled again, representing the collapse of the second tower.

The American flag was raised back to full staff, and the ceremony closed with prayer.

Bishop F. Vincent Cuestas, the fire department's chief chaplain, prayed that people don't forget.

"It's good to remember those who died and not forget those that are left behind," said Cuestas, a bishop with the Orthodox Catholic Church of America.

Nichter, 38, of Fort Wayne, said she planned to attend at least four remembrances Wednesday. As a woman whose 5-month-old daughter was beaten to death 16 years ago, she can empathize with the families mourning loved ones lost last Sept. 11.

She came to the services because she didn't want to be alone.

"Other people are grieving," Nichter said, "and I want to be with those people."

The burgundy-haired woman, her husband and her 19-year-old daughter wore long-sleeved T-shirts bearing the image of ghostly twin towers cupped in God's hands. They read "A time to pray" on the front.

A lot of feelings coursed through Nichter as the bell tolled, she said.

Nichter was grateful her cousin survived the attack on the Pentagon (his office was destroyed), fearful that something like that could happen again and grief-stricken because of the magnitude of the pain it caused.

"You feel for the families," she said.

It took her 13 to 14 years before she could function normally after her daughter's death.

"They're just starting," she said.

Eventually, time will reach a point where it won't hurt so much, she said.

Ron Flickinger, coordinator of vocational education at Anthis Career Center, said he sometimes feels guilty because there's no way to empathize with the people who lost relatives in the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center last year.

You have sympathy for them, but no real way of understanding what they're going through, he said..

"Sometimes I feel guilty I don't feel devastated," said Flickinger, who attended the morning service at the fire station.

Some people, such as Fort Wayne Mayor Graham Richard, Police Chief Rusty York and Fire Chief Tim Davie, spent most of their day at solemn ceremonies marking the anniversary with moments of silence, speeches and patriotic songs.

Some, such as a former Fort Wayne resident visiting the city Wednesday, decided not to attend a single one. Larry, who was drafted into the Vietnam War after college, said the event has been blown out of proportion.

Equally tragic moments in history - if not more so - are the deaths of more than six million Jewish people during the Holocaust, millions of Africans with AIDS and the people killed during service in Vietnam, World War I and World War II, said Larry, who declined to give his last name.

Outside, away from TV news broadcasts and radio programs, the sun shone brightly on a summer day, hints of autumn carried by the cool breeze. The decision of some to wear white, red and blue clothing was one of the few outward signs that anything set Thursday apart from any other day.

Gone were the looks of shock, disbelief and despair that cloaked faces last year. Faces of people unable to perform their jobs, unable to tear themselves away from radio broadcasts and TV images of the twin towers going down in a cloud of dust, over and over again.

This year, many people donned appropriately somber expressions during prayers and memorial services, then walked away to resume their normal days - going to work, visiting the doctor, picking the kids up after school.

By evening, most people had either settled down to watch the broadcasts on television at home or gone to an evening remembrance.

More than 50 churches conducted services or special times of prayer, Mayor Graham Richard said.

People from all over Allen County converged on the Embassy Centre, including people born in Laos, Burma, India and Pakistan. They sat quietly as they viewed heart-rending portraits that represent Sept. 11 - a dust-covered firefighter burying his head in his hands, candlelight vigils, people lining up to donate blood to victims who didn't live to need it.

Randy Morrison said he chose to attend this one with his wife, Deb, because he wanted to go to one with the word "prayer" in the title.

The program was titled, simply: "Peace, Prayers, Patriotism."

"In the city of churches, a nation founded on God, I as a citizen have friends of many religious persuasions, and I get along with them peacefully," Morrison said. "But I remind them that this God doesn't have a grave."

The evening's interfaith emphasis didn't set as well with some.

A Fort Wayne carpenter, who asked to remain anonymous, said he didn't like having Islam shoved down his throat.

"America is real understanding," he said, standing outside the theater he left partway through the program. "But I'm not ready for that. It made me uncomfortable."

Others who attended the program shared his sentiment, he said.

But Alice Kelsaw, a nurse who lives in Fort Wayne, said she enjoyed the program very much.

"It was a heartfelt service," she said. "I enjoyed it very much."

©Copyright 2002, The Journal Gazette (Fort Wayne, IN)

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