Fanfare, flags, and silence mark 9/11

Wednesday's varied ceremonies will draw millions – a rare phenomenon in national grief.

Sierra Madre, Calif., is some 2,765 miles from ground zero in New York. But Wednesday, in this Los Angeles suburb, choirs will sing the national anthem, seven pastors will preach, and firetruck bells will toll, symbolizing loss.

Tim Alvine, a retired Colorado police officer, didn't know anyone who died a year ago. But he plans to wear a bracelet bearing the name of a victim during a 36-mile ride to Phoenix with thousands of other motorcyclists. "I feel it's my duty as an American," he says.

And at Columbus Stadium, 6,000 Ohioans will hold colored cards to form a "living flag" while news helicopters film it from above.

These are just some of the ways that Wednesday America will remember and reflect on the events of a year ago. It promises to be a day filled with sound: Mozart's Requiem, the pealing of church bells, and the Pledge of Allegiance. It also promises to be a day of silence: candlelight vigils and prayers. It will be a red, white, and blue kind of day. But some activists will wear white to symbolize peace.

Some Americans see it as day to help others. A woman in Irvine, Calif., for example, is taking a day to work with guide dogs as part of a program called One Day's Pay. Some companies, meanwhile, are giving workers the chance for a moment of silence at exactly 8:46 a.m., when the first plane hit the North Tower. And there is hardly a college or university in the nation that hasn't planned day-long discussions and events.

According to one survey, 42 percent of Americans plan to participate in a Sept. 11 observance. By the end of the day, there will hardly be an American who hasn't been touched in some way.

The scope of the reflection is as unprecedented as the attacks themselves. One year after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the nation was busy with the war effort. One year after President Kennedy was assassinated, the nation was debating its growing Vietnam commitment. Natural disasters, such as the San Francisco earthquake, have also not generated this kind of response.

"This impulse to memorialize immediately is a relatively new phenomenon," says Prof. James Young at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. "Some national need is being fulfilled here."

All the candlelight vigils and motorcycle rides may help the nation move on in a certain way: The observances may offer a chance to think about the events from a slightly greater distance. "I think the purpose of it is to sort of catch our breaths and to see what this is and what the meaning of this is," says Richard Raskin, director of the counseling center at Pace University in New York. He adds, however, that one year is probably not enough to put the attacks into perspective.

A year ago, Americans were also quick to react with vigils and patriotism. This year, there will be just as much flag-waving, but many of the events are more organized and complex. That's the case at Columbus, Ohio, which has been planning the day for five months. A local television station, NBC 4, came up with the idea of a "living flag," something that had been organized in 1991 by Sunny 95, a local radio station, to show support for the troops involved in Desert Storm.

Mayor Michael Coleman quickly signed on. "The reason we're doing it is because of what the flag stands for: unity, freedom, democracy, pride, and patriotism," he says. "The living flag symbolizes the future as well as all the trials and tribulations of the nation."

Many citizens couldn't wait to participate. One of those is Jack Riehle, a retired Army attack-helicopter pilot, who will be holding a gold star on the flag. He admits he often tears up when he thinks about Sept. 11. "Commemorative events will serve an important function to remember what happened and renew our anger and determination to not let it happen again," he says.

In fact, some events are citizen-driven. W. Steven Martin, for example, jerked awake at 2 a.m. with the idea for the Arizona motorcycle "patriot parade."

"I don't think there is any realization of the numbers," he explains. "People don't see 3,217 lives lost. They see a number, and so one night I told myself, 'I'm going to figure out a way to show that number.' "

So far, 3,500 riders have signed up, but he expects 5,000 on the day of the event. Even Serious, a bomb-sniffing dog that died inside the South Tower, is included in their list of victims.

Many groups are focused on offering the same solace as they did in the days following the attacks. Churches around the nation are planning to be open so citizens can come in for peace and quiet. Many, such as Boston's Trinity Church, will go further. Trinity is teaming up with Temple Israel and the Islamic Society of Boston for an interfaith service. During the day, people can can write thoughts on large vinyl writing surfaces outside the church.

Indeed, many events will let Americans express how they feel. That's the case at the Hidalgo County Historical Museum, 15 miles from the Mexican border in Texas. It invited the public to submit written personal memories from last Sept. 11. "The response has been incredible," says Jim McKone, a museum employee. "We've gotten calls from as far away as Eagle Pass 300 miles up the Rio Grande."

Small towns are particularly caught up in observances. That's the case with Sierra Madre, pop. 12,000. Organizations from the local Rotary to the Veterans of Foreign Wars will participate in its commemoration. Says Tamara Gates, the city manager: "Everyone was touched."

• Kris Axtman contributed to this report from Houston.

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