ST. PETE BEACH — They came together in protest, but Hands Across the Sand also felt a bit like a funeral.
Just before noon, hundreds of people gathered at the shoreline on Pass-a-Grille Beach to join hands under the scorching sun. They spoke of calamity, of a tomorrow where this picture-perfect beach is no more.
"The Gulf of Mexico is basically dying in front of us," said Logan Westerfield, 57, of Indian Rocks Beach.
The last time they came together to hold hands with strangers, in February, Hands Across the Sand was about persuading state legislators to not allow oil drilling in local waters. The show of thousands on both Florida coasts worked — legislators put off talk of more drilling this year.
But since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded on April 20, up to 2.5 million gallons of crude oil have been spilling into the Gulf of Mexico every day, according to the government's worst estimates.
"It's like the asteroid is coming, 'cause you can see it now," said Tom Berndt, 56, of Tampa, another first-time protester. "A line has been crossed for a lot of people. It means something to people. They can feel it. They can see it. They're fearful."
Westerfield grew up in Houston, where tar balls on the beach and oil platforms on the horizon were a fact of life. He moved to Florida 25 years ago to get away from all that. The least he could do was come out to his favorite beach and take a stand, he said.
Leslie Lees, 55, of Lakeland and Margaret Walker, a retired high school teacher from Ashland, Ala., sat beneath a palm tree, their eyes closed and fists clenched and raised high. They said prayers under their breaths.
In Walker's home state, oil has already marred beaches, and fishermen have lost their livelihoods.
"It brings tears to my eyes," she said.
The hands stretched up to Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs, east to the Gandy Bridge and to Spa Beach in downtown St. Petersburg.
At Howard Park, some 350 beachgoers brought signs to drive home the message: "Help a fish get his wish" and "Chill the drill."
"People don't realize that they need to change," said Linda Renn, who drove to Tarpon Springs from Leesburg.
Cathy Harrelson, a local organizer for Hands Across the Sand, said about 6,000 people attended in the Tampa Bay area. She said about 2,700 people participated in the February event.
"We don't know what else to do at this point," said Ned Schroering, 49, who came to the Gandy gathering with his wife and two daughters.
Schroering said he hasn't found a way to tell 9-year-old Mina and 5-year-old Marissa why they stood on the beach in mourning, adding, "I don't want to shatter their memories of the natural beauty of this place."
Staff writer Kim Wilmath and correspondent Jessica Brock contributed to this report. Reach Luis Perez at (727) 892-2271 or [email protected]