Mourners of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings gathered on the plaza this morning vowing to never forget. In the midst of the sorrow, however, they looked forward to what they hope to be a nuclear-free future.

"It's both more terrifying right now, but also more hopeful because there are so many people working to abolish nuclear weapons," said Estelle Voeller, who spoke about hopeful developments in the movement to end nuclear proliferation in the 63 years since the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II.

She cited the work of former government officials such as Henry Kissinger and George Schultz to reduce nuclear weapons and Mayors for Peace, a group of 2,368 mayors from around the world, including Ashland Mayor John Morrison, working to abolish nuclear weapons by the year 2020.

Organizers also had four different petitions against nuclear weapons for visitors to sign, twice as many as vigils in the past. Ashland has hosted the annual event on Aug. 6, the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, for 23 years. This year's vigil will conclude Saturday, Aug. 9, the anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing.

The vigil is held year after year because the United States has not stopped its nuclear program, said Jill Mackie, who organized the event.

"We as a leader should start disarming and stop producing, and then all the other countries will follow suit," she said.

City Councilor Eric Navickas opened the ceremony, saying it was important to dispel the myths that the bombings were a necessary step to end the war. His remarks were followed by a moment of silence and ringing of a Tibetan singing bowl at 8:15 a.m., the exact time the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

The death toll from both bombings topped 340,000, including victims who died up to five years after the initial blasts, according to U.S. government estimates.

Several of the ceremony participants made recent trips to Japan and said the vigil held extra significance to them now.

Jay Matheson made his first visit to the vigil, wearing a "Nuke free" baseball cap he purchased on his visit to Japan last October on a Fulbright Memorial Scholarship. He visited the Hiroshima memorials, the same area his father was stationed as a soldier following the war.

"In Japan, they really revere the people who went through this," he said. "Our veterans are dying too. Those of us whose parents and grandparents were a part of this have to carry the torch."

Charlie McChesney traveled to Hiroshima with the Rogue Valley Peace Choir in 2006 to sing at the Peace Park on the anniversary of the bombing.

"It was life-altering," she said. "The most amazing part was no one at any time expressed any negative energy towards us."

Visitors today and Saturday can fold paper cranes and paint their own lanterns for use in the closing ceremony. Organizers plan to end the vigil by floating candles in the lanterns and walnut shells in the lower duck pond in Lithia Park Saturday at 8 p.m.

Staff writer can be reached at 4872-3456 ext. 227 or .