Thousands gathered in Central Park Sunday night to remember the lives lost at the Saugus High School shooting, and reuniting in their grief, they shared a message.
“We will be OK,” Saugus High ASB President Andrei Mojica, 17, said. “We are resilient, we are courageous, we are loving and most of all, we are Saugus strong … The road to recovery is not easy … but I am confident that the sun shall rise on us once again.”
This vigil was the first time Saugus Principal Vince Ferry had spoken publicly since the incident, and as he stood on stage, choked up with emotion, he said, “I will do it.”
“I want my first words to be focused on Gracie and Dominic and their families,” he said. “I want my first public words, that I know will be far too inadequate, to be heard by my students and my staff … Tonight, the most important part of truly being Saugus strong is to grieve together. Through our tears, our hugs, our words of kindness, our remembrances of Gracie and Dominic, we will become stronger. Strength is not the withholding of tears or the waving off of pain. Strength is the ability to welcome our tears in the midst of pain.”
Students, staff and parents were joined by thousands of Santa Clarita Valley residents as they paid tribute to 15-year-old Gracie Anne Muehlberger and 14-year-old Dominic Blackwell, who died as a result of their injuries.
“Since Dominic entered this world, he brought love and joy to everyone he’s encountered,” Blackwell’s uncle Chris said. “He was quick to assume his role as a big brother. Full of love and a strong sense of duty, Dominic guided his three brothers as best he could … It was impressive to watch Dominic mature into a young man.”
In addition to family, Blackwell’s friend and fellow ROTC cadet Emma Bartel said, “It will be a long, painful walk to class without him on Dec. 2.”
“My heart breaks for his family and for the pain that they’re going through,” she added. “Nothing can replace his loss, and no words can heal our hearts, but we can honor him by remembering him. We will not move on without you, but rather move on with you in our hearts, holding your memory close to us and remembering all the good times together.”
Muehlberger’s oldest brother Riley graduated from Saugus this year, and is serving in the Navy. Though stationed in Florida, Riley had recently flown home to surprise his sister for her 15th birthday Oct. 10 — the last time he would see her.
“I’m so happy that my last memory with you was giving you a big hug at 5 in the morning before I had Dad drive me down to fly back to resume my normal life,” Riley said. “I woke you up and hugged you and you hugged me back even though you were half-asleep. I never could imagine that this hug would be my last.”
Muehlberger’s parents, Bryan and Cindy, wrote a letter that was read at the vigil, which told about the 15-year-old’s life, including her love of Starbucks, her infectious laughter and her strength.
“Gracie was a freshman in high school at Saugus,” the letter read. “She was only barely 15 when this tragic event occurred. She only spent 14 weeks in high school. It’s just too short of a time … It all came too soon … Gracie will remain alive in our hearts and the hearts and minds of all of you and the rest of the world.”
Addison Koegle, 14, who was also injured during the incident, recorded a message that was played at the vigil, which shared a few things about her best friend.
“Gracie was unique, and she cared about others the way no one else could,” Koegle said. “Just being around her was one of the best feelings in the world, and I wish I could be around her just one last time … I promise each of you that I will make something amazing out of this horrible situation — Gracie would have wanted me to.”
As chants of “Saugus” rang out through the night, Mayor Pro Tem Cameron Smyth said he’s never been so proud to be a part of the Santa Clarita community.
“The eyes of the nation turned to Santa Clarita, and what they saw was a community that first protected one another, who then supported one another, have lifted up one another and have loved one another,” he added.
Among those in attendance were former students, like Eric Kimura, class of 2013 alum who was handing out tissues and candy. “We’re just spreading love, which is what we all need right now.”
Others were handing out the 5,000 blue and orange remembrance ribbons that were made by volunteers, including parent Mercedes Rodriguez, whose son is a Saugus football player.
“It’s been pretty challenging for him,” she said. “He didn’t sleep for two nights, he kept saying, ‘They’re shooting.’”
Rodriguez’s husband died in June, which she said made this incident much tougher. “To have all that grieving going on, and then to get that phone call,” she said, “was like another stab right in the heart.”
Marcia Davis was an instructional assistant at Saugus for 12 years before retiring two years ago, and said it was hard to see an incident like this happen.
“It’s a little too close to home,” she said. “These people are suffering a lot … and I don’t think that this community can heal ‘til after tonight. I think this is going to be what’s going to help everybody pull it together.”
“Our hearts break as we offer condolences to the families of our students who lost their precious lives or were injured and will face long and arduous recovery,” added Superintendent Vicki Engbrecht of the William S. Hart Union High School District. “My also heart goes out to our young people who endured the terror of that day and have forever lost their innocence. In the face of unspeakable violence, we have united to care for each other and to begin the slow process of healing, knowing that none of us will really ever be the same again.”
Those who wish to send their support can visit saugusstrong.org.