SANTA FE, Texas – They gathered here by the dozens Friday evening, wearing their school colors, T-shirts that said “Texas Tough,” while huddling under the shade of a gaggle of pine trees, not 11 hours after the first shots were fired.
They came to pray and to sing, to hear the words of support from their politicians and pastors in the wake of yet another school shooting, this one at their high school.
They came seeking answers, to mourn the 10 who had lost their lives. They vowed to press on, to recover, to heal. Students, whose day began with panic and gunfire at Santa Fe High School, gathered as the sun set, hoping the hour-long vigil could help nurse them back to normalcy with soothing words and communal mourning.
The high school, still closed off by a phalanx of police officers searching for evidence, would remain “the center of this community,” Leigh Wall, the school district’s superintendent told the crowd. “No act of violence, no matter how horrific, will ever change that.”
Alexis Wilson, a 17-year-old senior, came with her mother and a friend. She wanted to show support, she said, to be among her friends and community after a day that was surreal. Like a bad dream, after it began so normally: in English class, where she had just sat down to work on her assignment: a composition about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Then the alarm went off. She thought it was a fire drill. Or, at worst, another lockdown. Santa Fe High had one just three months ago, after a student posted a picture of herself with a gun on social media, she said.
But as soon as she stepped into the hallway, she knew this time was different.
“Teachers were telling us to run,” she said. And when they got outside there were police cars, not firetrucks. And the officers had their guns drawn.
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She kept running. Across the street, against traffic.
“Drivers were slamming on their brakes to avoid hitting us,” she said.
At 7:36 a.m., minutes after the shooting began, she called her mom, Renee Wilson, who immediately knew something was terribly wrong: “The sound in her voice. The panic.”
Renee Wilson was already at work, about an hour away. But she hopped in the car, and fled back, driving on the shoulder, her hazard lights flashing, making it to the school in about 33 minutes, she said.
Now, at the vigil, they were 4 miles down Highway 6 from the school, hugging friends, while the volunteers from the Red Cross wearing vests that said “Disaster Relief,” passed out bottles of water in the heat. The local grocery store handed out flowers. Other volunteers passed out candles, 1,400 in all, while a Christian music radio station set up a tent that said “Need Prayer?”
Then Renee Wilson’s phone rang. It was news about one of Alexis’ classmates, who had been reported missing. But now, the caller said, he had passed. Another blow of horrible news in a day where there was nothing but.
They tried to steel themselves. To be strong, which was what speaker after speaker was urging.
“It is not tragedy that brings us together today,” said Pastor Lucas Campbell, of the Santa Fe Baptist Church. “It is hope in the face of tragedy that brings us together today.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, R, told the crowd that the state and community wouldn’t rest “until normalcy is returned to your school, and safety is returned to your school.” He said that at the hospital on Friday afternoon he met a student named Clayton, who was recovering from a gunshot wound in his arm and yet wore “a smile of resilience.”
Alexis Wilson, on a sunny spring day weeks away from graduation, tried to be resilient, too, wiping away tears and pointing to the back of her T-shirt that invoked the school’s mascot and motto: “Indians got your back.”