AURORA, Colo. (AP) — Anne Marie Hochhalter, wearing a silver cross around her neck, sat in the front row of a vigil for the victims of the Colorado theater massacre.
Her connections to those wounded in the attack early Friday at an Aurora movie theater was closer than most.
Paralyzed in the 1999 Columbine massacre, the 30-year-old Hochhalter said she can offer a little hope to the victims’ loved ones and the survivors.
“I would tell them that with time, it does get better. But it never goes away,” she said.
Among the thousands at Sunday’s vigil was Darius Harvey, 18, of Aurora, who was in the theater during the shooting and lost a friend in the massacre.
“I was there and I’m part of this community. I felt I should be here,” Harvey said. “It’s good for healing the community and I felt that it is very necessary for our state and community to know that our nation cares about us.” He then joined the crowd in singing “Amazing Grace.”
The vigil closed out a day of prayer and remembrance for the 12 theater-goers who were killed and the 58 others who were wounded by a lone gunman.
Congregations said prayers and sent out social-media appeals for neighbors who wanted to join in remembrance.
President Barack Obama, who visited victims’ families and survivors, cited Scripture as he spoke at a hospital where some of the wounded were being treated.
The prayers came in different languages, but the message was the same — hope and faith in the face of unimaginable evil.
“You’re not alone, and you will get through it,” said the Rev. Kenneth Berve, pastor at Grant Avenue United Methodist Church and a witness to Friday’s horrors.
Berve’s 19-year-old stepdaughter Emma Goos was in the movie theater, and when Berve and his wife arrived to pick her up, they saw a horror they couldn’t have imagined.
At another Aurora church, elderly members of an aging Presbyterian congregation within walking distance to the suspected shooter James Holmes’ apartment joined in prayer, though none had ever met him.
At the church of the suspect’s family in San Diego, signs inside asked for prayers for those in Colorado affected by the shooting and for Holmes’ family.
As the sun set later Sunday, several thousand gathered for the vigil on an Aurora lawn to pray for the victims.
Mourners released purple balloons and cheered police officers who responded to the shooting.
Gov. John Hickenlooper looked choked up in his remarks after meeting relatives of the dead with Obama.
“It was almost like somehow God had come down and picked the most vibrant and alive among us and taken them,” the governor said.
Hickenlooper read the name of each victim, with the crowd shouting after each one: “We will remember.”
Several pastors spoke, including one who also prayed for “the conversion” of the shooter.
Natalie Berzoza, 30, of Denver and her friend Jacqueline Vigil, 29, both stood holding candles. “You don’t think that many people are there for you until something like this happens,” Berzoza said.
Vigil recalled the shock of hearing of the attack. “I had the overwhelming feeling,” she said, “as soon as it happened, that I needed to go to a prayer service, go to a church, do something.”
Columbine students who survived what in 1999 was the worst school massacre in U.S. history are reliving their own experiences. And they’re banding together to try to help. On Facebook and by phone, they are reaching out to people who witnessed the attack.
Young people were victims and witnesses in both the theater shootings and the ones at Columbine. The Columbine survivors want those at the movie theater to know that the road ahead of them won’t be easy.
“Similar to the graduating senior class from Columbine, they may soon find themselves surrounded by people who have no clue that they were involved in a traumatic event,” Columbine survivor Ben Lausten wrote on a Facebook page for survivors of school shootings.
“Breaking down and crying for no apparent reason (which is perfectly normal!) is harder to do in an office, or a business, or in ‘normal’ society,” he said. “These victims have a challenging path ahead of them.”
Another piece of advice: Don’t waste time trying to figure out what motivated the shooter or shooters.
“It’s a waste of time, and it gives them exactly what they want,” said Hochhalter, who was eating lunch as a 17-year-old junior when she was shot in the chest and spinal cord on April 20, 1999. Even as the years pass, she said, she’s no closer to understanding why Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot and killed 11 classmates, a teacher, and then themselves.
“I don’t think I’ll ever understand,” Hochhalter said.
But the Columbine survivors understand this: The Aurora survivors will need to talk. And they promise to listen.
“We know what they are going through, and we can help,” wrote Michelle Romero Wheeler, a Columbine survivor who posted links to sites supporting people at the theater shooting.
By KRISTEN WYATT, Associated Press … AP reporter Thomas Peipert contributed to the story.
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