Prayers offered for all touched by Parkland shooting — even the suspected gunman

Students console each other as they weep during a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Wednesday shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Fla., Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. Nikolas Cruz, a former student, was charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder on Thursday. [Associated Press]
Students console each other as they weep during a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Wednesday shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Fla., Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. Nikolas Cruz, a former student, was charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder on Thursday. [Associated Press]
Published Feb. 16, 2018

The father of a 14-year-old killed Wednesday in a Parkland school shooting told thousands gathered for an evening vigil that the rampage "makes no sense."

"Don't tell me there is no such thing as gun violence," Fred Guttenberg told the crowd. "My girl. My 14-year-old baby. And for those of you who knew my Jaime, she was the life of the party; she was the energy in the room. She made people laugh and yes, sometimes she made us cry. But she was always known. She always made her presence known."

THE VICTIMS: Remembering the 17 who died in the Parkland school attack

As he spoke, sobs from parents, students and community members at Pine Trails Park for a sunset vigil grew louder.

"I sent her to school yesterday. She was supposed to be safe," he said. "My job is to protect my children. What is unfathomable is Jaime took a bullet and is dead."

The hour-long remembrance drew speeches from state and local politicians, clergy members from different faiths, school board members and other local leaders. It was one of several events held Thursday to honor the 17 killed in the Wednesday massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

On the park's amphitheater stage were 17 life-sized Christmas-style angels adorned with lights. Attendees left behind flowers, candles and pictures of those killed in the shooting spree.

Taylor Benson, 14, placed a bouquet of pink and white roses into the growing pile, recalling a biology lab partner who wouldn't be returning to school. Gina Montalto, 14, was along those killed.

"I just saw her Tuesday," she said. "Not being able to see her every other day is going to be very difficult."

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The service began as the light faded. Leaders spoke about community, strength and resolve in the face of evil. Thousands of candles lit up the night sky.

Broward Sheriff Scott Israel, Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie, and U.S. representatives Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Ted Deutch, both Democrats, were among the politicians who spoke passionately about the need for gun control laws. The audience broke out in applause.

"Now is the time for us to enact some common-sense gun laws in this country," Runcie said.

Other speakers focused on the 14 students and three adults who were murdered. As each name was read, the sobs grew louder.

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Among those in the crowd were Anthony Rizzo, a Chicago Cubs first baseman who grew up in Parkland.

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"I went to Stoneman Douglas. I grew up at Stoneman Douglas," said Rizzo, visibly shaken. "I played on the those fields. I went to those classes."

Rizzo said he doesn't have "all the answers" but said something has to change.

"I will make one plea to all the teachers and coaches and parents, and especially the students of Parkland … we have to be there for each other. We have to be the best possible versions of ourselves."

Earlier in the day, more than 1,000 students, teachers and school staff members came together to share their sadness, anger and shock, also gathering at Pine Trails Park.

At 2:35 p.m., precisely 24 hours after the shooting started the day before, the group held a moment of silence to honor the students, athletic director, assistant football coach and teacher killed in Wednesday's rampage.

"I'm really happy that we survived it," said 14-year-old freshman Arianna Gonzalez, who was in a classroom close to where the first shots were fired. "Just praying for everyone who went to heaven. They gained angels."

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Her phone rang; it was the FBI asking about the incident.

About the same time, at Parkridge Church in Coral Springs, hundreds filled a shaded church courtyard and playground as religious leaders led them in song and prayer.

"Father, we pray that into our broken heart you would speak peace," said the Rev. Doug Sauder of Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale, asking the mourners to put their hands on the shoulders of the people next to them.

Parents held their children, and strangers touched those seated in front of them as they whispered prayers.

Amid the pleas to God, there were also calls to action.

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"None of our churches touched that child," said Broward County school board member Rosalind Osgood, referring to the shooting suspect, Nikolas Cruz. "We need to reach out to those children who are not in our immediate community."

More than a dozen religious leaders from local churches addressed the mourners, offering prayers in English, Spanish and Creole for the many people impacted by the tragedy, including students, teachers and other school personnel, first responders, the teachers, the school workers.

The Rev. John Jones of First Baptist Church of Fort Lauderdale prayed for the high school athletic director and football coach who lost their lives trying to save students. "Martyrs who saved and selfishly gave themselves to protect their students, their friends," he said.

ABOUT NIKOLAS CRUZ: What we know about the Florida school shooting suspect

And there was also a prayer for the shooting suspect.

"We pray for Nikolas and for his extended family," said the Rev. Eddie Bevil of Parkridge Church. "We ask that you would intervene in his disturbed mind."

As religious leaders left the stage, each released a silver balloon. Mourners held hands. A woman broke into sobs. Member of the Douglas High color guard huddled together, hugging and crying over the loss of their teammate Gina.

"It's just a lot of emotions," said junior Camila Padilla, 16, who hid in the school auditorium during the shooting, wearing headphones to block the sound of gunfire.

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Tee Nelson and Shirley Daye live near the school and are part of the Parkridge congregation. They said that many of the church's youth group members are students at the school.

"It could have been my kid," said Nelson, whose son attends a nearby charter school. "It hits home."