With supportive words and a literary flourish, Blair flies in to deliver a message of solidarity

Terror in America: Prayer Service
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There were no coffins and the word "memorial'' was taboo, but the atmosphere was funereal as Tony Blair stood in a church in downtown Manhattan yesterday and tried to find words of comfort for hundreds of bewildered Britons.

In the absence of bodies, possibly in the absence of any remains at all, this may be the nearest we see to a requiem for the estimated 200 or more people from the UK who died in the attacks last week on the World Trade Center.

The service of prayer was held in St Thomas's Church on Fifth Avenue, a setting chosen for its episcopalian links with the Anglican faith. A congregation of about 700, including at least 100 relatives of the missing, listened, some weeping, as the Prime Minister reminded them that this American tragedy was Britain's greatest peace-time loss, too.

Above Mr Blair, set in a great reredos of Dunville stone, were figures of John Wesley and William Gladstone, a reminder of the weight of responsibility lying on the Prime Minister's shoulders in his support of the US.

"There is no reading, and there are no words that can truly bring comfort to those missing their loved ones today," he told them. "After the terrible events of last week, there is shock and disbelief and anger. But around the world there is the most profound solidarity. There is determination to build hope out of tragedy; there is a surging of the human spirit.

"We wanted to be here today to offer our support and sympathy to families of the lost ones". He added that the bond between the two nations "so strong for so long" was even stronger now.

Mr Blair, in the midst of an intensive 48 hours of diplomatic shuttling, had reached New York via Berlin and Paris on route to see President George Bush in Washington last night. With his wife, Cherie sitting next to Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations, the former US President, Bill Clinton, and his daughter Chelsea, the Prime Minister tried to make sense of it all.

Quoting from The Bridge of San Luis Rey by the Pulitzer Prize-winning American author, Thornton Wilder – a book that explores the relationship between god and humankind focusing on five deaths caused by the collapse of a Peruvian bridge – he said: "Soon we will die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves will be forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them.

"Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and the land of the dead, and the bridge is love. The only survival, the only meaning."

The assertion that in the end love is enough was not lost on the clearly emotional congregation. For many of the people in the church yesterday that, indeed, maybe all that is left once the byproducts of terror are swept away.

After the service, the relatives of victims were escorted away from the watching media. New Yorkers gathered outside the street in the rain to cheer Mr Blair and his wife. Shortly afterwards the Blairs parted, the Prime Minister leaving for Washington while his wife visited New York fire station. They had been due to visit together earlier, but it was postponed because of the tight scheduling.

Dennis Frahm, 56, a former US Ranger, said: "It's difficult to describe how important it is that the Prime Minister should be here to show Britain's solidarity. The bonds between our countries our strong. Our people have died for each other." There was no doubt that this day's congregation at St Thomas's was moved by the reading and message of goodwill from the Queen.

"These are dark and harrowing times for families and for friends of those who are missing or who have suffered in the attack," the message read. "My thoughts and prayers are with you all now and in the difficult days ahead. But nothing can be said that can begin to take away the anguish and pain of these moments. Grief is the price we pay for love."