An estimated 12,000 people crowded into a riverfront plaza in Windsor, Ont., on Wednesday night to welcome the Olympic torch relay, in what the city's mayor called one of the largest gatherings for the relay so far.

tp-wdr-torch-relay

Matthew Charbonneau, 15, hoists the Olympic torch after lighting the Olympic cauldron in Windsor, Ont., on Wednesday night. ((Dennis Porter/CBC))

"Backstage, we were talking to the organizers [and they told us] we're definitely in the top five for attendance," Mayor Eddie Francis told CBC News. "They've never seen anything like this before, so wow!"

Singers and dancers kept the crowd entertained.

But the highlight of the night came when 15-year-old Windsor resident Matthew Charbonneau took the torch for its final, 300-metre leg of the day and lit the Olympic cauldron.

Charbonneau was chosen as the city's torchbearer in honour of his older brother, Cpl. Andrew Grenon, who was killed in Afghanistan in September 2008.

Though the thousands cheered as Charbonneau tipped the torch to the cauldron, for him, there were "no words for it."

"If he was here to celebrate this with me, that would be equal to nothing," Charbonneau said of his brother. "I felt more emotional than I've ever felt."

A city unites

Wednesday night's torch ceremony was a unifying experience for a city that has struggled in 2009. Massive layoffs in the automotive sector affected thousands of Ford and Chrysler workers, and the city's unemployment rate has consistently been the highest of Canadian cities, most recently at 13.1 per cent.

A bitter strike by municipal workers that lasted more than three months also created divisiveness between them and city managers, and angered many residents who went without city services like garbage collection and park maintenance during the warm summer months.

For Francis, the ceremony was exactly what the community needed.

"All of us are blown away by the number of people that have turned out," Francis said. "We shouldn't be surprised, but this community continues to surprise me."

"When it came down the street, I thought 'I can't believe I'm here watching this,'" said Diana Bunag, of Windsor. "'This is so cool.'"

"I thought it was cool because something that's so popular around the whole world comes to a small place like Windsor," added her friend, Julia Marchenkowsky.

The night ended with fireworks and then the plaza cleared.

On Thursday, the torch leaves Windsor on its way to Sarnia, with stops in Tecumseh, Walpole Island, Wallaceburg, Corunna and Aamjiwnaang.