By TRAVIS LOLLER, KIMBERLEE KRUESI and DENISE LAVOIE (Associated Press)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Hundreds of people gathered at a candlelight vigil in Nashville on Wednesday to honor and mourn the three children and three adults who were killed in a shooting at a Christian school this week.
The downtown ceremony for the victims of the shooting at The Covenant School was somber and at times tearful, as speaker after speaker read the names of the victims and offered their condolences to loved ones. The family of Mike Hill, a 61-year-old caretaker who was among those killed, was present, including his seven children.
First Lady Jill Biden was also present but did not address the crowd. Sheryl Crow sang “I Shall Believe” and ended with lyrics from a Dionne Warwick song, “What the World Needs Now is Love, Sweet Love.” Margo Price sang an a cappella version of “Tears of Rage”. And Ketch Secor of the Old Crow Medicine Show led the crowd in the Christian hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, which brought many to tears.
“Just two days ago was the worst day in our city,” Mayor John Cooper said. “I so wish we weren’t here, but we have to be here.”
Shaundelle Brooks, who lost her 23-year-old son Akilah Dasilva in the 2018 Nashville Waffle House shooting, said she went to the vigil to support the families of those killed at school.
“I know what it’s like to be a parent – what it’s like, like you’re drowning and you can’t move, and that weakness and that hole that forms in your stomach,” he said. she declared.
Police say a 28-year-old former student came to the school on Monday morning, fired through the glass doors, entered and began shooting indiscriminately.
The dead were identified as students Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs and William Kinney, all aged 9; Katherine Koonce, 60, school principal; substitute teacher Cynthia Peak, 61; and Hill.
Authorities have yet to determine the shooter’s motive, but say the assailant did not target specific victims.
Price, who spoke specifically about Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s stance on state gun laws, tweeted after the shooting, “Our kids are dying and getting shot at school, but you’re more concerned with drag queens than smart gun laws? You have blood on your hands. Crow and Secor also called for tougher gun laws in tweets posted after the shooting.
But there was no talk of gun control at the vigil as people shunned the political divide between blue-leaning Nashville and ruby-red Tennessee. Republicans and Democratic lawmakers united to demand remembrance of the six people who died.
Lee said Tuesday that Peak was close friends with his wife, Maria, and the two had planned to meet for dinner after Peak’s work that day.
“Maria woke up this morning without one of her best friends,” Lee said in a video statement, adding that his wife had previously taught with Peak and Koonce. The women, he said, “have been friends of the family for decades.”
Earlier Wednesday, Pope Francis sent his condolences to Nashville and offered prayers for those affected.
George Grant, pastor and leader of the Nashville Presbytery, also avoided any mention of politics.
“While pundits and politicians try to make sense of the insane, we don’t really ask why. We know why – we live in a broken and fallen world,” Grant said Wednesday morning. The church linked to the school is a member of the Presbytery, which includes congregations from central Tennessee and southwestern Kentucky.
In a blog post on Wednesday, Grant recounted how notifications of an active shooter at the school interrupted a parsonage planning meeting that included Chad Scruggs, pastor of the Covenant Presbyterian Church and father of one of the victims of the shooting.
“We emptied out into the hallway, smashed, eyes misty with disbelief, horror and grief. … Our worst fears came true,” Grant wrote.
Police said the shooter, identified as Audrey Hale, was under a doctor’s care for an undisclosed emotional disorder and was not on police radar before the attack. Hale was fatally shot by police at the school on Monday.
Authorities gave unclear information about Hale’s gender.
For hours on Monday, police identified the shooter as a woman. Later that day, the police chief said Hale was transgender. In an email Tuesday, a police spokesperson said Hale “was assigned female at birth” but used male pronouns on a social media profile.
Maria Colomy, a former teacher at Nossi College of Art & Design in Nashville, recalled Hale as a talented artist while a student in Colomy’s social media class in 2017. Colomy recalled Hale “going beyond- beyond” on projects.
She said she saw Facebook posts over the past year in which Hale wrote about the death of a romantic partner and asked to be called by a male name and male pronouns.
Hale had “been grieving very publicly” on Facebook, Colomy said. “It was during this heartbreak (Hale) said, ‘In honor of this person, I’m going to be the person I want to be, and I want to be called Aiden. “”
On Hale’s first day at Nossi School, Colomy said he saw Hale get frustrated trying to log into the student portal and start crying.
“I went up to (Hale) and said, ‘Hey, if you need to hang out, that’s totally OK,'” Colomy said. But after that, Colomy said Hale started to feel safe at school and “really started to blossom”.
Samira Hardcastle, who attended middle school and high school with Hale, said Hale seemed sweet and socially awkward. Hardcastle said she spoke to Hale briefly last month at an event for a mutual friend, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
“I don’t think we can rationalize irrational actions, so I’m just trying to make peace with that,” she said.
Holly Meyer, editor of AP Religion News in Nashville, and Beatrice Dupuy, fact-checking reporter in New York, contributed to this report.