Westmoreland victims of addiction honored, mourned at Remembrance Day event | TribLIVE.com
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Westmoreland County residents participate in a candlelight vigil for the National Day of Remembrance at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Greensburg In January 2017. The event paid tribute to community members who were lost to addiction.

The slim young woman in the back pew fought back tears as images of those who have lost their lives to addiction streamed on a screen in front of her.

Ashley Berger-Wannamaker, 32, who attended the service with her sister, said she was addicted to opioids in 2010 when their mother died of an overdose of the pain pills she had become addicted to after surgery.

“My mom’s death probably saved my life,” said Berger-Wannamaker of Greensburg, now clean for nearly five years.

“I’d probably been in and out of 10 rehabs,” she said. “Prayer is why I’m here and healthy and able to help others. Something needs to be done. It’s still too easy to get pain pills.”

More than 100 people — some in recovery and others mourning loved ones — gathered Sunday at Westminster Presbyterian Church of Greensburg to remember and honor those who lost their battles with addiction as part of the county’s first celebration of National Remembrance Day.

A 16-minute slideshow showed the human toll of an opioid epidemic that’s plaguing the region and nation. From 2012 to 2015, 377 people died of a drug overdose in Westmoreland County. In 2016, 139 fatal overdoses have been confirmed and 33 suspected cases are being investigated, according to county coroner statistics.

At the back of the church, white angel wings with the names of people who have lost the battle with addiction were attached by clothespins to purple ribbon hung on the back of wooden pews. Carmen Capozzi of advocacy group Sage’s Army played a song he wrote on his son’s guitar about Sage Capozzi, 20, of Irwin, who died in March 2012 of a drug overdose.

Those in attendance hugged each other and wiped away tears during the slideshow, which featured 66 photos. Some stood to take pictures when their loved ones appeared on the screen. Chris Toth, associate pastor at Word of Life Church in Hempfield, pointed out the 172 luminaries placed around the sanctuary to remember those who died last year of drug overdoses in the county.

“Even if we just lost one, that’s one too many,” Toth said. “But the fact that you’re here tonight shows me that you want that to change. No longer will we sit idly by while this devastation happens.”

Chris Tantlinger was devastated just eight days ago when his daughter Rachael Tantlinger died of a drug overdose in Greensburg. He called the event a good way to spread awareness.

“It’s absolutely imperative that this continues, and each journey is different for each person, so it’s very difficult to find a path on your own,” he said. “Rachael, she was good and fine as much as she was addicted.”

Tantlinger is hazard mitigation coordinator with the county’s public safety department.

“I plan for catastrophes every day,” he said. “This calamity of addiction is something that we’re in the war (of).”

Kimberly Brant of Jeannette was missing two people on Sunday night — her fiance, George Rapp, who died after an overdose in 2014, and the father of her children, Terry Wayne Mathias Jr., who died in April. She wore Mathias’ ashes in a small necklace.

“This is the most wonderful thing. There’s no words that I can say how much I appreciate (it),” Brant said during a break in the service. “People forget about these people because they’re not superstars, they’re not on the news. All family members should be remembered. They were loved. They will always be loved.”

Ryan Rupert talked easily about his struggle with addiction and clean lifestyle for more than seven years. Wearing a baseball cap, blue jeans and a black T-shirt that accented the colorful tattoos on his forearms, the 39-year-old Avonmore man said he’s not finished fighting the scourge of heroin and urged others to fight on with him.

“The best friend of this disease is silence,” the brawny union steelworker said.

“I am that guy who wishes I’d said something,” Rupert said. “I stood in front of the best friend’s coffin and wished I’d said something. What I can’t live with is standing in front of another friend’s coffin, wishing I’d said something.”

Renatta Signorini and Debra Erdley are a Tribune-Review staff writers. Reach Signorini at 724-837-5374 or [email protected]. Reach Erdley at 412-320-7996 or [email protected].

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