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AIDS quilt draws huge crowds to nation's capital


October 12, 1996
Web posted at: 11:35 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- As thousands of people gathered in Washington Saturday to view the mile-long AIDS Memorial Quilt, a mother grieved the loss of her son who died in her arms of the deadly disease in 1992.

"Somebody loved every one of these people that are represented on these quilts," said May Ann McKenna, 58, who traveled from Florida to remember him.

By nightfall, men and women paid tribute by carrying lighted candles as they walked from the U.S. Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, led by actress and AIDS activist Elizabeth Taylor and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala.

Facts about the quilt

Some kneeled on the quilt weeping, as if holding impromptu memorials. Others left flowers on the panels next to loved one's names.

"We might not know any people here but it still touches. You don't need to know them," Chris Hacker said.

Personal mementos

The symbolic blanket was unfurled for the first time in four years Friday, stretching from the Washington Monument to the foot of Capitol Hill. It will be on display throughout the weekend. (23 sec. / 878K QuickTime movie)movie icon


The quilt is made of individual panels about 6 feet by 3 feet (1.8 meters by 1 meter) sewn into groups of eight and divided with pathways so visitors can visit each tribute. Each of the 38,000 panels commemorates at least one person who has died from the disease.

Some panels just give a name of a victim, perhaps with a portrait. Others include personal items: passport, motorcycle jacket, teddy bear, pair of jeans.

For some who visited the Mall, it was a chance to learn the fate of long-lost friends. Craig Bossi, 39, of New York, leafed through a 208-page booklet listing the dead and learned for the first time that several of his friends had died.

"I didn't expect to track down old friends this way," he said somberly.

May be last viewing

Most names on the quilt are Americans, but AIDS victims from 39 other countries are included, ranging from Zambians to Cubans to Russians to Thais.

Quilt Close Up

An estimated 2,000 speakers will read the names of the 70,000 men, women and children memorialized by the quilt as part of the weekend ceremony. Actress Elizabeth Taylor participated in the readings Saturday, a day after Vice President Al Gore; his wife, Tipper; and poet Maya Angelou did so.

The symbolic blanket first debuted in 1987 and has been shown in 2,000 U.S. cities. But it has grown so large it now has to be stored in a San Francisco warehouse, moved by 10 rail cars and unfolded by 1,000 people. It was last displayed in 1992.

The current display may be its last because it has become so large. On Friday and on Saturday alone, families and friends of more recent victims brought about 2,000 new panels to expand the quilt.

"We're running out of spaces in urban America that can accommodate the quilt," said Scott Williams, a spokesman for The Names Project.

AIDS is the No. 1 killer of American men ages 24 to 44, and about 320,000 people have died from the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. (19 sec. / 612K QuickTime movie)movie icon

AIDS activists demonstrated Saturday outside the White House, hoping to raise political awareness of the disease.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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