- John Pacenti Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
They came with their tears. They came with their prayers. They came with their anger and their protest signs.
Just like they came after Columbine, after Sandy Hook, after the carnage at Virginia Tech University, they came Tuesday to the makeshift memorial along the chain-link fence in front of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, a quintessential American suburb whose quiet forever ended with the rapid fire of an AR-15 one week ago.
Others couldn’t bear the sight of the school. They headed to a nearby park where yet another shrine has flowered, where 17 angel statuettes stand, like a silenced chorus representing the dead in the latest American mass shooting: three teachers, 14 students, one gun.
And on Tuesday, they kept coming, often two by two, but slowly amassing in front of the school.
Douglas students and others came to lay flowers by the crosses and Stars of David. Students from West Boca High marched out of class and walked in the sun for up to 10 miles to show support — and to call for gun control.
Pastors from churches outside Parkland came to provide comfort. Others came just because they had to see with their own eyes that one troubled young man could cause such a confluence of not just anger and loss but also of love and resolve.
About another 100 young people gathered at a nearby Publix, boarded two buses and headed to Tallahassee, to tell lawmakers that they want sensible gun control now.
Apparently, somebody was secretly slipping red business cards with a heart and the words “You matter” into some visitors’ pockets.
All of it played out in front of the public lens of the ever-present media as news reporters with their notebooks, cameras and microphones weaved among the human tapestry.
Maggie Remek visited Stoneman Douglas many times as a recruiter for Broward County’s technical college. On this day, she fell to her knees and prayed in front of just a tiny portion of the sprawling memorial that stretches along the front of the school.
The backdrop is a chain-link fence that is now a kaleidoscope of flowers, balloons, stuffed animals, hearts, signs — some obviously written in the penmanship of small children: “Douglas High School. I hope you feel better.”
“We don’t even know each other, but we’ve come here to pay homage,” Remek said of the throngs drawn to the memorial.
A few feet down, two students hugged as they lay flowers in front of the cross and stars upon the grassy swale.
Nearby, a mother wept to a TV news reporter about how one of the dead was her son’s best friend and his photographs dot their home.
“How do you move on? How do you move forward” she asks the reporter. Her question was not rhetorical. She seemed to really want an answer.
Remek, who lives in Cooper City, said somehow this community has wrenched something very special out of tragedy on this spate of this roadway.
“I feel safe here, safe to say a prayer,” Remek said. “It’s good to see the beauty that emerges from the chaos.”
For spiritual leaders, the memorial allowed them a chance to reflect after days of funerals or providing grief counseling. For Rabbi Shuey Biston, director of outreach and development of Chabad of Parkland, the soul-crushing gravity of the situation came to bear upon him when he stopped by the school’s memorial.
“I just sat there and cried,” Biston said. “I really hadn’t had a moment to process any of it at all. But this morning I went by and I stopped by each of the children’s markers, I lay a flower and I spent a moment.”
His father, Rabbi Yosef Biston, tried to explain the phenomenon being experienced and witnessed in Parkland after such a horrendous tragedy. He said strangers flew in from outside the state just to sit shiva — the Jewish mourning period — with the families of Jewish victims.
“The Hanukkah candles, if you look in the box, they are many different colors, but the flame is the same,” the elder Biston said.
But there is also anger — so much anger.
Tyra Hemans, a Douglas senior who lost two good friends and a coach in the slayings, stood like a soldier in front of the memorial, stone-faced, holding her sign. “Enough,” it said, along with other sayings and a drawing of an automatic weapon with a red slash through it.
“People who we lost, if they were here today, they would want us to fight,” Hemans said. “Each soul that was taken, is each soul I have to fight for.”
Later, Hemans was at the Publix on Coral Ridge Drive, waiting to board the bus for Tallahassee, holding court for the cameras, giving a face to the new #NeverAgain movement to push for stronger gun laws.
Another angry young person was Chris Grady, a senior at Douglas who planned on joining the Army upon graduation. He had one message for lawmakers who don’t want what he called common sense gun safety reform, such as extensive background checks. “If you are not with us, you are against us and we will be voting you out,” he said.
FULL COVERAGE: Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting
Alfonso Calderon, 16, also a Douglas junior and a co-founder of #NeverAgain, took issue with some right-wing pundits claiming he and his peers were being manipulated by the anti-gun faction. “This is an all-student, grass-roots movement,” he said.
For some, though, the river of grief at the school or the media circus at the Publix, was too much. They found solace at the other memorial at Pine Trails Park amphitheater.
Jordyn Laudanno, 17, was one of the last students to escape the deadly rampage from a student who had previously been expelled. She was laying flowers at the markers for the dead in front of the stage.
“This feels like a more peaceful place to come. We don’t have to look at the school,” she said.