As they have done for seven years, the families of the three women who died in the Pier 34 collapse gathered yesterday at a Cherry Hill church to mark the tragedy's anniversary, to remember their loved ones and to share in each other's lives.
"We have become a family - very tight," Manuel Rodriguez, father of Monica Rodriguez, said beneath an overcast sky before the morning Mass for his family and those of Jean Marie Ferraro and DeAnn White.
The three women - Rodriguez, 21, and Ferraro, 27, both of Cherry Hill, and White, 25, of Germantown - drowned in the Delaware River the night of May 18, 2000, after a portion of Pier 34 in South Philadelphia with Heat nightclub on it collapsed.
During the Mass at the Catholic Church of St. Mary, the Rodriguez family's church, the families sat together in the front center wooden pews. Framed photos of the three women were placed at the front, amid flowers.
Yesterday's message of grief, joy and forgiveness, given by the Rev. Francis Gaffney and the Rev. John Killeen came after pier owner Michael Asbell and pier operator Eli Karetny on Monday entered pleas in the criminal case, avoiding a retrial.
"What about the pain afterward?" Gaffney said in the simple wooden-and-white-walled interior of the church. "The pain, the suffering, the angst of your trying to do the best for your children, and their lives are taken away for an instant. What can you say? Do you call that mystery? No, you don't. You call it pure evil."
The "immediate reaction is revenge," Gaffney said. But, as Jesus said, "that does not work."
Speaking to the victims' families, Gaffney added: "I ask you to put your trust in God. . . . I ask you to try and forgive even the worst of people."
After the half-hour service, Gail Ramsey, one of DeAnn's four sisters, said the message was especially timely this year.
"I have a lot of compassion for everyone involved in this tragedy," she said. "It's just sad the whole thing happened. I pray we'll get to that point of forgiveness."
Eileen Ferraro, Jean Marie's mother, said: "Seven years, it's unbelievable. After what went on Monday, finally, we're able to rest.
"There will always be a hole in my heart," she added. "I think about her every day."
John Ferraro, Jean Marie's father, said his family felt "pretty numb" during Monday's plea proceeding and that he feels "relieved" to not have to go to court and sit through another trial.
"Now, it's up to the judge to sentence them or not," he said of Asbell and Karetny. "One of the things that's very difficult is we can never have a family dinner again with all of our children together. It's something we have to live with the rest of our lives."
If people learn something from the Pier 34 case, it's that "businesses should be safe," he said.
Blanche White-Toole, DeAnn's mother, also shared how the grief "still hurts. It still hurts a lot. Today is the anniversary. Sunday's her [DeAnn's] birthday."
For each anniversary, the White family sends roses to Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Germantown, to which DeAnn belonged. They also keep her spirit alive through the DeAnn White Scholarship Fund (www.deann white.com).
Among the 50 people gathered at the service was Philadelphia Deputy District Attorney Charles Gallagher, who has attended the Mass for the past several years. He was the lead attorney in the Pier 34 grand jury investigation and at the preliminary hearing.
Gallagher said he attends because of the relationship he has developed with the families over the past seven years and also to "let people understand we in this office empathize with their loss."
On Monday in Common Pleas Court, Karetny, 66, of Cherry Hill, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of three counts of involuntary manslaughter and 43 counts of recklessly endangering another person. In exchange, prosecutors withdrew felony charges of criminal conspiracy and risking a catastrophe.
Asbell, 64, of Merion, pleaded no contest to all charges, including the felony counts. Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper is expected to sentence both men June 22.
The defendants, through their lawyers, and the victims' families have all expressed a wish to move on with their lives.
Manuel Rodriguez and his wife, Mary Lou, will soon be moving from Cherry Hill to the Fort Worth area in Texas to be close to their son, Mark, and his family.
But, year after year, they expect to return to Cherry Hill for the anniversary service, the family said. "Even if we're all in Texas, we'll come back here," said Mark, 34, just before he went to join other family members in the church parish hall for breakfast and "to reminisce about the past and the good memories." *