While thousands of mourners slowly gathered on a mild February day to remember the 17 people who were killed by a gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, a group of eight high school students formed a tight circle.
As others fell into one another with hugs and tears at Pine Trails Park before Thursday’s vigil for the dead, the eight students appealed to a higher being to save the souls they had just lost. They reflected on the sanctity of life. They held each other up just 24 hours after experiencing senseless evil.
“Those who are lost, we shall carry on their lives for them” Shay Makonde, a 16-year-old Junior at the school who lead the prayer, said to the group.
The vigil brought together an impressively sized crowd, easily marking several thousand people. Students came together to process the recent horrors together, while the broader community showed their support.
Goodbye notes were written on post-it notes and attached to walls of kindness. Roses piled up on a stage alongside candles. White crosses cold be seen on a field near the Pine trails Park vigil, which is one of six such ceremonies scheduled this week to remember those who died.
“It’s all still kind of so surreal. It’s crazy to think it hit so close to home,” Asa Dykes, 16, who is a sophomore at the school, said. “Having everyone around, that helps.”
In a nearby field, Valeria Fernandez, 16, walked back and forth between groups of friends. In her hand was a single rose, a tribute to a good friend of hers who had died in the shooting.
Valeria says that she and her friends had rushed to the hospital after they were released from lock down Wednesday, but they could not find their friend Helene. They thought they had received some good news from an official who said she had arrived for medical care awake, but found out hours later at 3 a.m. that she had passed.
She said that the community coming together to support the students, including school counselling Thursday morning, had been helpful during one of the darkest moments of her life. As was the solidarity at the vigil.
“I feel connected to the school. I feel like I can hug anyone,” Valeria said, reflecting on how the shooting had changed her relationship with her school of more than 3,000 students.
Behind those hugs, of course, are fresh wounds and deep loss. Behind the brave faces the students put forth was still a sense of fear and confusion after such a devastating event.
Silvanna Marcucci, 14, was was home when the shooting began, but was horrified to hear about the shooting. She goes to the middle school next to the high school, and spent her afternoon texting her friends in lock down to tell them what was happening, since they were being told very little.
Her mother, Vincenzia Ciccaglione, says that her daughter asked for a ride to the school for counselling the next day, but stopped mid-walk when she got there and came back the car. She opted instead for watching television in her pyjamas Thursday.
Still, Silvanna, though she perhaps was not ready to to go back to the scene, emphasised the lesson she is at least trying to process.
“If anything, we just need to encourage each other, to stand by each other,” she said.
As for Shay — the young man who led prayer — the day after the shooting has been more than an exercise in community. It has also presented the challenge of forgiveness.
Twenty-four hours before he led those prayers, Shay says he was in one of the hallways where Nikolaus Cruz, the 19-year-old suspect, opened fire on students. Shay says he pulled two of his classmates into a hallway during the shooting. He says he heard Cruz laughing before he saw a third friend go down.
Shay said that he cannot hate the shooter — he hopes he changes in prison. Instead, Shay says he wants to focus on the people he still has in his life, and on honoring his lost friend’s life. Hatred, he said, only breeds more hatred and pain.
“I can’t afford to hate, or lack courage,” Shay said. “We don’t need to lose any more lives.”
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