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Warnings of Highway Closures Kept Crowds Away : Miami a 'Ghost Town' for Pontiff's Parade

September 11, 1987|From Times Wire Services

MIAMI — Weeks of warnings about major highway closures during the Pope's visit apparently frightened off many commuters Thursday, and may have dampened enthusiasm for John Paul II's parade, police said.

"Miami has been like a ghost town," Miami police spokesman Angelo Bitsis said.

An hour before the Pope was scheduled to parade up Biscayne Boulevard in the city's heart, only 5,000 people had gathered along the street, he said. Papal visit officials had estimated that 250,000 would crowd the boulevard for the parade.

"Traffic was extremely light all day," Bitsis said. "And many people who came to work left about noon."

No Traffic Snarls

Outside the city limits, the Florida Highway Patrol reported no traffic snarls despite the closure of some of South Florida's most heavily used arteries, including a stretch of Interstate 95.

Metro-Dade police said traffic was lighter than usual, and the only slowdowns occurred in the immediate area of the airport.

"But even then it kept moving," police spokesman Rey Valdes said.

Police and local authorities had heavily publicized road closings, even advising commuters who worked in Miami on Thursday to expect to stay long after dinner time.

The warnings may have worked too well, Valdes said, scaring people away from the parade, and perhaps from today's open-air Mass the Pope will celebrate in Tamiami Park.

Spirits High

The light turnout did not dampen the spirits of those who did show up for the parade, however.

Clara Gesni, her husband and two daughters, ages 4 and 6, arrived at 8:30 a.m. to stake out their spot midway along the parade route. Gesni, who wore a dress in papal yellow, began the day by attending Mass.

She knew she had a long wait and a hot day ahead of her, with temperatures pushing past 90 by early afternoon with only an occasional puffy white cloud in the mostly azure sky. The parade was not scheduled to begin until 7:15 p.m.

"It doesn't matter," she said. "What's important is that all the people in the world hear the message of the Pope."

Inside Les Violins, a nightclub on Biscayne Boulevard, Father George Bez of San Lazaro Roman Catholic Church in Hialeah and 10 others sat in front of two television sets.

'A Wonderful Honor'

"This is a grace of God," Bez said. "I'm from Cuba, and this is a wonderful honor to see the Pope and hear his message to the American people."

Outside, Caridad Mendez, 68, of Miami Beach, and her 75-year-old sister-in-law counted themselves among the faithful.

"I think today is a wonderful day," Mendez said. "He is not only the Pope, he is a special man. I'm Catholic and he's the Pope, but it doesn't matter. He is a special man."

Mendez, who arrived at 9 a.m. with a lawn chair, sun visor and fan, also said she liked the Pope for his politics.

"He's anti-communist because he suffered it," she said. "And we are anti-communist. We are from Cuba."

Many Vendors About

Like Miami police officers, vendors were out in force early, setting up their booths and hawking papal souvenirs along the sidewalks.

One man selling foam rubber miters, the pointed head dress worn by popes and bishops, estimated he would earn at least $500 for the day.

"People are making a lot of money off the Pope," he said.

Bleacher seats set up in a vacant parking lot on the south side of Biscayne Boulevard were selling for $20 apiece. Nearby, vendors were selling fans, visors, yellow and white flags, Pope T-shirts and papal buttons.

One vendor, who did not speak English, sold hand puppets of the Pope wearing orange boxing gloves.

At St. Mary's Cathedral, where the Pope addressed more than 2,000 parishioners in Spanish and Creole after exchanging official greetings with President Reagan at Miami International Airport, the mood was also upbeat.

Trumpet Fanfares

Three trumpeters with yellow and white flags adorning their instruments heralded his arrival with fanfares.

After another official welcome, the crowd watching the ceremonies took up the chant "Viva el Papa!" in Spanish.

"I was dying," Gigi Pinchinat said. "I was trembling when I saw him. I was trembling and my heart was beating."

Pinchinat is Haitian, like many in the polyglot crowd that also included Latinos and U.S.-born citizens, white and black. Pinchinat held a sign saying, "Jesus, Peter and John Paul II: Trilogy for change in Haiti."

As the pontiff spoke outside after the papal greeting inside the cathedral, the crowd clapped and cheered exuberantly, waving small banners with the colors of the Haitian flag and turning the lawn into a sea of red and blue.

"He (the Pope) said the Haitian people love Mother Mary and should keep praying to her so we will have a change in the system," said Marie Duplan, 42. "He spoke the Creole language so that we feel proud and that means that the Haitians are somebody too. We know the change will come pretty soon."

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