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Hundreds Remembered At 'International Overdose Awareness Day' Gatherings

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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- On "International Overdose Awareness Day," people gathered in downtown Pittsburgh to remember and reach out to others dealing with addiction.

At Trinity Cathedral on Sixth Avenue, the Church bell tolled 613 times to remember the 613 people who died from an overdose in Allegheny County in 2016. Bagpipes played as people gathered together praying for help and sharing their support.

Sam Gaetano, who is a recovering addict and minister, was one of the speakers at the event.

"I've been on both sides of the coin. I've been lifeless and breathless on the floor more than once. Thank you for showing up and administering Narcan. I would not be here to talk about my story without that," Gaetano said.

At the ceremony, Gaetano was not the only one thanking the Pittsburgh Bureau of EMS. First responders were given boxed lunches and praise from city and county officials for saving more than 1,400 lives in 2016.

"The vast majority of the victims we save, we give a second chance to. We revive them. And that's when you come into play -- family members," said Robert W. Farrow, Chief of Pittsburgh Bureau of EMS.

Chief Farrow told the group that support, family and treatment are the only true hope that works.

While Gaetano's life was saved with Narcan, his brother could not be revived.

"In cleaning up that overdose site on my knees in my sister's living room, I was crying -- devastated. And I know that God brought me back so I could tell you that He's real," said Gaetano.

Those 613 deaths is the highest number of overdose deaths Allegheny County has ever seen. It's a climb from 424 people in 2015 and a massive increase from 109 people in 2000. At the City-County building, parents paid tribute to their children with photos and messages on chairs -- to put faces and memories with the startling numbers.

"Addiction is a family disease. It's not just on person. And that she's not a number, she will always be remembered," said Renee Hardy, who lost her daughter to an overdose.

Jeanna Fisher also lost her daughter to an overdose. She helped organize the event.

"There is not a listing to say my child overdosed so this is the only way to reach out to parents and families and friends who've lost somebody," Fisher said.

At both events, people agree one way to combat the opioid epidemic is by removing the stigma associated with addiction.

Later, on Thursday evening, a candlelight vigil was held at Saint Peter's Episcopal Church in Brentwood. Loved ones lit candles in honor of those who have been lost.

KDKA's David Highfield Reports --

Lou Rainaldi lost his niece. She was just 24 and had a bright future ahead of her.

"This is my niece and goddaughter, Amber. We lost Amber to an accidental overdose on June, 4 2015," Rainaldi said.

He says Amber overdosed on a mixture of heroin and fentanyl.

The vigil was organized by the John F. Slater Funeral Home, in part, because they've seen the rising number of overdoses.

"We certainly see a lot of overdoses at the funeral home and our hearts break with every overdose that there is, because, you know, it's not just a statistic," said Christine Crompton, of the John F. Slater Funeral Home.

They see the pain caused by drug addiction, and so has Rev. Jay Geisler who has worked for 30 years with people recovering from addiction. He says we need to view addiction differently.

"When I'm impatient, when I am ready to lose my temper, when I have been ripped off by an addict, what I think is, if this person had cancer, how would I treat them?" he said.

Rainaldi agrees, and while it's too late for Amber, he thinks a change in thinking can save lives.

"Addiction is a disease, and we have to stop putting the stigma and putting people down, people really need help," Rainaldi said.

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