Black balloons twisted in the breeze in front of Erie County Hall Tuesday night, in remembrance of those lost to the opioid epidemic.
As Joseph Donohue sang the mournful words of "Amazing Grace," the bell of Old County Hall tolled after the name of each person killed. The county Health Department Opiate Epidemic Task Force remembered those who succumbed to drugs.
Jackie Sullivan buried her son Stephen. Sullivan said it is hard on families, both her two surviving sons and her grandchildren.
"Now you're worrying about them," Sullivan said. "They are coming up in this age of where there's so many dangerous things and you worry about them all. No, there's no difference between one child to the other and you just pray they outlive you."
Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein said this community is making some progress, since fewer fatally overdosed last year than the year before, including more use of Narcan to bring people back from the edge of death.
County Legislator Lynne Dixon praised the survivors for remembering their own and working against the epidemic.
"I want to thank each and every one of you for your courage, to put yourself out there, to tell your story, to tell your child's story, to tell your husband's story, your wife's story, your friend's story and do it with the purpose of making sure this doesn't happen to another family," Dixon said.
District Attorney John Flynn said government recognizes this is both a criminal justice issue and a health issue. That is in comparison to two prior drug epidemics, he said, when government saw it as a criminal issue and put many African Americans in prison.
"Thank God, in the mid-2000s now, 2015, 16 and 17, we have finally learned our lesson and we are treating this disease as the county executive stated and as Dr. Burstein stated, as a disease and not just as a criminal justice problem," Flynn said.
Flynn and U.S. Attorney James Kennedy both said they are pushing to prosecute every drug dealer they can and there has been some success.
In past years, the balloons have been released into the sky. This year, those in attendance were asked to take them home and display the black balloons outside to show the impact of opiate addiction in the community.