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Santa Monica Mourns

By Jorge Casuso and Teresa Rochester

Sept. 11 -- As one of the bloodiest days in United States history waned, more than 100 Santa Monicans gathered around the steps of City Hall Tuesday evening and tried to make sense of the terrorist attacks that leveled the World Trade Center and a section of the Pentagon.

It was a day when the City's chief of police watched images of terror unfold with analytical detachment before letting his humanity grieve.

A day when an Islamic woman would fear the repercussion against her faith of an act that may have taken the life of a loved one she had not been able to contact all day.

A day when a Latin American cleric who had recently become a U.S. citizen felt a part of his new nation for the first time since moving here two decades ago.

And it was a day when a former mayor who helped lead opposition to the City's living wage law embraced the current mayor who led the pro-union fight.

"Hug me mayor, that's what this town is all about," former mayor Nat Trives said as he embraced Mayor Michael Feinstein.

"I don't think you want to see your mayor cry," Feinstein told the crowd.

For the former mayors and civic leaders, department heads and those who'd never stepped into City Hall, the twilight vigil was a time to come together and grieve a shared and senseless loss as three high-jacked commercial airliners rammed into two of America's most enduring symbols of wealth, power and military might.

"I think we need to take this awful experience and experience it together as a community," said former Mayor Judy Abdo. "I don't want to limit community to Santa Monica, California or the U.S., but the community of the world."

"Now I have a fear, a personal fear," Rev. Sandi Richards of the Church in Ocean Park said of the events. "I hope the way we move forward and combat that fear is with perfect love to understand the zeal that drives some to do what we have witnessed today."

Police Chief James T. Butts Jr. told the crowd that he had sat in his office behind City Hall and watched the images of the day's events unfold with the emotional distance of a public safety official charged with keeping the city safe.

"There's an interesting dynamic when you're in public safety," Butts said. "You're detached from the human horror of it all. I was analyzing the response of public safety personnel. It wasn't until late this afternoon that I began to accept it from a human perspective."

What brought it all home, Butts said, was the plight of two heroic firefighters who had barely escaped the collapse of the first World Trade Center tower by throwing themselves into a subway opening, only to crawl out and begin to help the victims in the second tower.

"The second tower collapses," Butts told the crowd. "And they haven't been accounted for."

Mgsr. Lloyd Torgerson, pastor of St. Monica's Catholic Church, was still grappling with the events he was unable to explain earlier that day to 1,000 students at the parish schools.

"I didn't know what to say," Torgerson said. "They're growing up in a different world. We pray that somehow, someday there will be an end to violence and war. We beg the Lord tonight that in that valley of darkness there will be hope."

Rev. James Conn, a former mayor, asked the assembled to pray for those who committed the terrorist acts witnessed by his son from a New York rooftop.

"My son was on a roof garden of the 10th floor of a building just a half dozen blocks away and saw people making a choice between diving into the flames and diving into the streets," said Conn, the urban strategist for the Los Angeles Region United Methodist Church. "All of us have been traumatized by this in that way.

"My fear is that in our trauma we will strike out and do even more hurt," Conn said. "Whoever it was that decided (to do this) were very desperate people. There is a world out there that is desperate. We must pray for them."

Nasreen Haroon, the Westside Representative for the Southern California Islamic Center, pled for tolerance, fearing that after the attacks people "immediately think of Muslims"

"We have really paid for it in the past," she said, likely referring to the initial response to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, when Muslim extremists were immediately suspected. "The actions of such people does not belong to a religious group. Religious groups should not be blamed for the actions of individuals.

"It is a time for people to realize that we are a segment of society," she said, adding that she has been unable to locate one of her relatives in New York. "It is an attack on us. It is an attack on you."

Father Tomas Elis of St. Clement's Catholic Church, who was imprisoned by General Manuel Noriega in his native Panama before fleeing to the U.S., said that the terrorist attacks had made him feel American for the first time.

"We are really one," Elis said. "How do we respond to those that cause affliction? We need that tremendous restraint in our spirit. It's easy to be angry.

"I became a citizen earlier this year," Elis said. "Today I really felt I am an American. I never thought I could say that."

Dr. Piedad Robertson, the president of Santa Monica College, who came to the U.S. from Cuba when she was a young adult, said the day's events had reinforced her belief in America.

"I came to this country as a refugee," Robertson said. "I saw the beauty and strength of this country. We have been blessed as a nation, and on days like this our beliefs in this country are confirmed. Besides the words of peace we must say the words of belief in this country. God bless America."

Father Mike Gutierrez, pastor of St. Anne's Catholic Church, called for tolerance and unity, noting that he was the son of a World War II veteran stationed in Italy.

"We stand here tonight as members of a 234 million nation," Gutierrez said. "We stand firm for those truths and liberties, but also the toleration to understand and to move ahead."

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