JERSEY CITY, N.J. - It was meant to be a dignified tribute on Sept. 11: a flock of doves soaring majestically past Lower Manhattan's altered skyline.
But they weren't doves, they were pigeons. And many of them couldn't fly.
During the memorial service here, the birds plunged into the Hudson River, smacked into plate-glass windows of office buildings and crashed into the crowd. One perched atop the hard hat of a construction worker whose company had helped clear Ground Zero.
Since the ceremony, animal welfare advocates and others have been trying to rescue the birds and roast the organizers.
For their part, organizers said they had tried to hire a company to conduct a professional bird release, in which trained doves or homing pigeons would soar high in the sky and then return to their owner's roost.
But the pros were already booked for 9/11 this year.
So the organizers turned instead to a Newark poultry market and bought 80 squabs intended for soup, not knowing that the weak-winged birds would have trouble flying.
Despite the problem at the memorial, first reported Wednesday in The Jersey Journal, one organizer said most of the birds are better off now than they would have been had they remained at the poultry market.
"I don't know how anyone could be so short-sighted, especially for 9/11," said Ellen Goldberg, a teacher at the Raptor Trust, a nonprofit bird hospital in Millington, N.J., that is treating two birds that were released during the ceremony.
"Every year," she said, "we have to deal with 3,000 birds, including 300 pigeons. We get sick birds, injured birds, birds that have been shot. We thought we'd seen it all. We've never seen this before."
It all began, said Guy Catrillo, a chief organizer of Jersey City's 9/11 Memorial Committee, when he started calling the handful of New Jersey companies that offer professional bird releases.
"They called me looking for birds for their ceremony," said Lisette Hall, owner of Doves for Love, a company in Somerset, N.J. "They wanted our doves. We were all booked, but they were desperate for birds. They said, 'Well, please call us if you have any last-minute availability.'"
Hall, who had already committed to two other memorial services, did not.
So, Catrillo said, the Jersey City organizers went to the poultry shop. "I don't remember the name," Catrillo said. "I know it was Portuguese." They took delivery of about 80 birds Sept. 10, just hours before the 8 a.m. memorial service.
"We were going to release the pigeons during the unveiling of the 9/11 memorial," he said. "The pigeons were supposed to fly."
Instead, the birds, which Goldberg said might never before in their young lives have spent significant time outside their cages, turned the ceremony into a blur of feathers and confusion.
"When they let the birds out, they seemed not to know how to fly," recalled Susan Ryan, who attended the ceremony with a co-worker, Nuria Almeida. "They flew into buildings. One flew right into the water."
Almeida said the program continued, awkwardly, despite the birds. "A lot of people were upset because they didn't want them sitting on their heads, and they were swatting them away," she said.
The two co-workers said they remembered one bird that bobbed across the stage. Catrillo took a snapshot of one perched on the hard hat of an iron worker. The body of another was later fished out of the Hudson.
The women were so struck by the pigeons' plight that they returned to the site of the memorial service after work that day and gently placed two of the birds in a shoe box, then took them to the Raptor Trust.
Goldberg said the birds appeared undernourished and hospital workers were trying to fatten them up. The fate of the others is unknown, although Catrillo said he had seen several in trips around Jersey City.
"I saw one today who lives by a hot-dog cart," he said. "I tried to catch him. But he flew away. Pigeons are natural survivors."
And despite what he called "snide comments" about the release, Catrillo said he already had plans for next year's memorial service.
"I'm going to release monarch butterflies," he said. "But I'm sure there's some group somewhere who will say that that's the wrong thing to do, too."