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Patriotism in the air

Patriotism filled the street Saturday, as a throng waved flags, blew kisses and cheered for the people who risked their lives in the name of freedom.

An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 spectators _ five to six times the turnout of past years _ lined Hanley Road to honor area veterans during the annual Veterans Day Parade through Town 'N Country.

"It can't get any better than this," said Thomas "Chick" Gagnier, commander of American Legion Post 138 in Port Tampa, after finishing the route. "I'm just glad I was wearing sunglasses, because I had some tears."

His post was among more than 90 veterans groups, floats and marching bands that took part in the parade, which lasted more than two hours. Although the event was almost canceled because of financial problems, participants and spectators agreed it was the biggest and best ever. Veterans thanked New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for rallying support.

"Outstanding. Tiptop," said Army veteran Thomas Tullo. "This is how it should be." A recent Tampa transplant from Long Island, N.Y., he was chosen to carry a firefighter's hat with members of the Veterans Council of Hillsborough County.

Many people attributed the high turnout to the events of Sept. 11. Dozens wore "God Bless America" T-shirts.

"Patriotism is awake again," said Debbie Roush of American Legion Post 5 in Tampa. "It's a shame that 6,000 people have to die before patriotism comes back."

Like a lot of veterans, she hopes it stays.

People gave standing ovations to members of Tampa's combat wounded veterans, some of whom walked with crutches and rode in wheelchairs.

"There's more patriotism in the air," said parade watcher Omar Cruz, a Desert Storm veteran from Town 'N Country. "It's nice to see."

In all, about 3,500 people marched in the parade, said Bruce Sorrell, who helped coordinate the lineup. For the first time since the parade began in 1984, authorities blocked off all four lanes of Hanley, instead of the customary two.

The parade drew groups from as far away as Kansas and South Carolina, including the Marine Corps Band from Parris Island, S.C. It also featured local favorites, such as marching bands from Leto and Alonso high schools.

"Today is the day to be patriotic," said Christine Marion, who dressed up as the Statue of Liberty to march with Cub Scout Pack 246 from Woodbridge Elementary School in Tampa. "She's one of the most powerful and amazing women I know."