NEW YORK, N.Y. - Amid a sea of humanity converging upon Ground Zero in lower Manhattan on Saturday, Gary Strike, dressed in a red-and-white Canada fleece, stood out like a beacon on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
With decided determination, the town councillor from Carleton Place, Ont., made his way through the throngs gathered in front of the famous Ladder 10 firehouse, directly across the street from the onetime site of the World Trade Center before it was reduced to mammoth piles of twisted steel and smoky dust on that dreadful day a decade ago.
Strike had a mission -- he wanted to present the firefighters of so-called Ten House, a building almost crushed into oblivion on 9-11 when the twin towers collapsed, with a Canadian flag made up of the signatures of more than 2,000 well-wishers from north of the border.
With about 150 wounded U.S. veterans outside the firehouse posing for a massive group photo, it was no simple task. But Strike purposefully marched through the group, past a fire truck, into the firehouse and politely insisted, and before long two firefighters emerged to gratefully accept the flag.
"You're our neighbours," Strike told Lieut. Thomas Baroz as together they unfurled the banner.
A beaming Baroz replied: "Thank you for all your support over the years. It really is a great honour to accept this for everything Canada's always done for this country."
Next on the agenda? Another nearby firehouse, Ladder Eight, and a police station, where Strike handed out more flags to officials.
Strike wasn't the only Canadian in town on this sombre occasion. Prime Minister Stephen Harper met with victims' families on Saturday night, and was to attend a memorial service near Ground Zero on Sunday.
A trio of New Brunswick firefighters was also on hand on Saturday outside the No. 10 firehouse to pay their respects and tip their hats to the squad, who lost five men on 9-11. Jason Green, Nathan Pirie and Jeff Watters-Gray were among several firefighters from Atlantic Canada on a bus tour to New York to lend support.
"We stick together -- volunteer, career, it doesn't matter. When you lose 343 guys in one event, you want to commemorate that," said Green, a volunteer firefighter in Perth-Andover, NB.
"I've been at it nine years," said Pirie. "It doesn't matter where you go; it's a brotherhood."
Saint John's Watters-Gray said the anniversary was an emotional one.
"It strikes close to home, I guess, to see what the firefighters went through ... it could happen to any one of us, any day of the week," he said.
As he spoke, a steady stream of passersby worked their way down Liberty Street. As many of them found themselves in front of the firehouse, they stopped to pay tribute to the firefighters.
"Thanks for everything you do," an elderly woman in a wheelchair, being pushed by her husband, shouted to a group of three men as she went past.
"Thanks, darling," one shouted back, smiling. "Much appreciated!"
That was a typical scene on the streets surrounding Ground Zero on Saturday. While the crowds were largely sombre -- some wept as they stood by the site -- there was no shortage of the qualities so abundant in Americans but rarely celebrated: jovial friendliness, good humour and kindness.
Perfect strangers chatted amiably. One helped a new acquaintance fix his camera, which had jammed as he snapped shots of St. Paul's Chapel. Some were emotional, with personal connections to the terrible events. Some were just there to remember and pay their respects.
White ribbons of remembrance fluttered in the breeze at St. Paul's, which served as a 24/7 relief station for thousands of Ground Zero rescue workers 10 years ago. It's dubbed The Little Chapel That Stood because it sustained no damage on 9-11, despite its close proximity to the World Trade Center.
"I had to come here because it's such a good place," said Italian tourist Sofia Rizzo as she tied her own white ribbon to the chapel's wrought-iron fence. "It seems to sum up all the good that showed itself that day. The best of the people came out."
Strike is a Canadian example of that goodness. It's not the first time he's organized a signature flag project; he collected a dozen similar flags in support of Canadian troops in Afghanistan a few years ago, and arranged to have them sent to the soldiers.
All of Canada, in fact, was honoured for its most famous 9-11 show of kindness at an event earlier this week in Washington, D.C. The tiny Newfoundland town of Gander received an international resiliency award for opening its heart, and its homes, to thousands of people stranded there when air traffic was grounded in the chaotic aftermath of the attacks.
The tribute to Gander touched the three New Brunswick firefighters.
"It's amazing, eh?" Green said. "But that's what Canadians, and eastern Canadians are all about ... lending a hand."