Memorial for Nashville shooting victims: ‘Our hearts are broken’
By Jonathan Allen and Brendan O’Brien
NASHVILLE (Reuters) -First lady Jill Biden joined a memorial vigil in Nashville on Wednesday for the three children and three adults shot to death this week at a Christian day school, including two educators who were close friends of the Tennessee governor’s wife.
The outdoor ceremony, attended by several hundred people, began about an hour before sunset in Nashville Public Square Park, outside city hall in the state capital, Tennessee’s largest city, and several miles from the scene of Monday’s massacre.
The service lasted only about 30 minutes, punctuated by prayers and performances from musicians Sheryl Crow, Margo Price and Ketch Secor.
The crowd sang along to Secor’s rendition of the popular Christian hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” as he accompanied himself on banjo.
The victims’ names were repeatedly recited during the tribute – 9-year-old students Evelyn Dieckhaus, William Kinney and Hallie Scruggs, along with custodian Mike Hill, 61; the school’s headmaster, Katherine Koonce, 60; and substitute teacher Cynthia Peak, 61.
“Think of all the hugs they would have had, and all the hugs we can still give each other,” said Mayor John Cooper, accompanied by numerous local leaders and clergy. “Nashville has had its worst day. Our hearts are broken.”
Cooper saluted police officers and other first-responders, for “rushing towards danger to save lives on our darkest day.”
The perpetrator of Monday’s carnage, former Covenant School student Audrey Elizabeth Hale, 28, was fatally shot by officers storming the building minutes after gunfire was first reported, likely preventing a higher death toll.
“Our police officers have cried and are crying with Nashville, and the world,” city Police Chief John Drake told mourners.
‘THERE IS PAIN’
Monday’s shooting, the latest of dozens in U.S. schools this year alone, has touched a particularly raw nerve, in part because three victims were so young and because it scorched Nashville’s tight-knit Christian community.
“Many Tennesseans are feeling the exact same way: The emptiness, the lack of understanding, the desperate desire for answers, the desperate need for hope,” said Tennessee Governor Bill Lee in a video posted on his Twitter feed.
Lee said both Koonce and Peak at one time had taught at the same school as his wife, Maria, and that the three remained close friends for decades. Lee said Peak and his wife had planned to dine together on Monday.
“I understand there is pain. I understand the desperation to have answers, to place blame, to argue about a solution that could prevent this horrible tragedy,” he said. “This is not a time for hate or rage.”
Some in extreme right-wing circles have seized on the case to vilify transgender people, after police said the shooter identified as transgender. It has since emerged that Hale was going by the name Aiden and using male pronouns on social media in recent months.
The shootings heightened anxiety in the LGBTQ community amid moves by Republican politicians in numerous states to outlaw gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth, including a ban enacted recently in Tennessee.
Small arsenal at home
Drake, the police chief, said investigators seeking clues to what precipitated the killings were examining maps and writings in a 60-page notebook found at Hale’s home. The writings suggested plans to carry out shootings at other locations, but authorities have yet to pinpoint a motive, Drake said.
The shooter was armed at the time of the attack with two assault-style weapons and a 9mm handgun, which police later found were among seven firearms that Hale had legally purchased in recent years.
While Hale targeted the school – housed in the Covenant Presbyterian Church and serving about 200 students from pre-kindergarten to sixth grade – the individual victims were slain at random, police have said.
In a CNN interview on Wednesday, Drake said it remained unclear what role, if any, Hale’s gender identity, religious beliefs or educational background played in the attack, stressing that the investigation was in its early stages. He said earlier this week that investigators believed Hale harbored some resentment at having attended Covenant as a child.
“There may have been some resentment. But we haven’t been able to confirm it,” Drake said on Wednesday. “As of right now, we don’t have any indication there was any problems at the school or home.”
Investigators are also looking at the mental health of the shooter, who was under a doctor’s care for an emotional disorder, Drake said.
As with most high-profile mass shootings, the latest attack has added fuel to a long-running national debate over gun ownership rights and regulations.
Tennessee does not require a permit to possess a firearm, regardless of whether it is concealed or openly carried.
(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in Nashville and Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Additional reporting by Rich McKay in AtlantaWriting and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Leslie AdlerEditing by Mark Porter and Matthew Lewis)