by: TRAVIS LOLLER, KIMBERLEE KRUESI and DENISE LAVOIE, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Hundreds gathered Wednesday at a candlelight vigil in Nashville 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 condolences to their loved ones. The family of Mike Hill, a 61-year-old custodian who was among those killed, was in attendance, including his seven children.
First lady Jill Biden also was on hand but did not address the crowd. Sheryl Crow sang “I Shall Believe” and ended with the 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 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 our city’s worst day,” Mayor John Cooper said. “I so wish we weren’t here, but we need 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 slain at the school.
“I know what it’s like to be a parent — what it feels like, like you’re drowning and can’t move, and that weakness and that hole that comes in your stomach,” she said.
Police have said a 28-year-old former student drove up to the school Monday morning, shot out the glass doors, entered and began firing indiscriminately.
The dead were identified as as students Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs and William Kinney, all 9 years old; Katherine Koonce, 60, the head of the school; substitute teacher Cynthia Peak, 61; and Hill.
Authorities have not yet determined the shooter’s motive but say the assailant did not target specific victims.
Price, who has been particularly vocal about Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s position on state gun laws, tweeted after the shooting: “Our children are dying and being shot in school, but you’re more worried about drag queens than smart gun laws? You have blood on your hands.” Crow and Secor also called for stricter gun laws in tweets posted after the shooting.
But there was no talk of gun control at the vigil, as people steered clear of the political divide between blue-leaning Nashville and ruby red Tennessee. Republicans and Democratic lawmakers stood together in asking for remembrance of the six who died.
Lee said Tuesday that Peak was a close friend of his wife, Maria, and that the two had been planning 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 once taught with Peak and Koonce. The women, he said, “have been family friends for decades.”
Earlier Wednesday, Pope Francis sent condolences to Nashville and offered prayers to those affected.
George Grant, a pastor and leader with the Nashville Presbytery, also avoided any mention of politics.
“As pundits and politicians try to make sense out of the senseless, we’re not really asking why. We know why — we live in a broken, fallen world,” Grant said Wednesday morning. The church linked to the school is a member of the presbytery, which includes congregations in middle Tennessee and southwestern Kentucky.
In a blog post Wednesday, Grant recounted how notifications about an active shooter at the school interrupted a presbytery planning meeting that included Chad Scruggs, Covenant Presbyterian Church pastor and father of one of the shooting victims.
“We emptied into the hallway, stricken, eyes clouded with unbelief, horror and grief. … Our worst fears were realized,” 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 the radar of police before the attack. Hale was fatally shot by police at the school Monday.
Authorities have given unclear information on Hale’s gender.
For hours Monday, police identified the shooter as a woman. Later in the day, the police chief said Hale was transgender. In an email Tuesday, a police spokesperson said Hale “was assigned female at birth” but used masculine pronouns on a social media profile.
Maria Colomy, a former teacher at the 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 remembered Hale “going above and beyond” on projects.”
She said she saw postings on Facebook during 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 very publicly grieving” on Facebook, Colomy said. “It was during that grief (Hale) said, ’In this person’s honor, I am going to be the person who I want to be, and I want to be called Aiden.’”
On Hale’s first day at the Nossi School, Colomy said she saw Hale become frustrated while trying to log into the student portal and start to cry.
“I went up to (Hale) and said, ‘Hey, if you need to step out, it’s totally OK,’” Colomy said. But after that, Colomy said Hale began to feel safe at school and “really started thriving.”
Samira Hardcastle, who attended both middle 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 am just trying to make peace with that,” she said.