#SaugusStrong: A year in reflection after Saugus High School shooting

Thousands gather at Central Park for the Saugus Strong Vigil on Nov. 17, 2019, just three days after a fatal shooting at Saugus High School. Signal file photo.

As families, first responders and media descended on Central Park one year ago today, it became abundantly clear that Nov. 14 — the day Gracie Muehlberger, 15, and Dominic Blackwell, 14, lost their lives — would become one of the darkest days ever in the community. 

Held back by law enforcement at the park, parents stood on their tip toes, frantically scanning the back soccer fields for their Centurions who had evacuated there after leaving behind their cellphones and backpacks on campus following gunshots fired by a student who killed two classmates and injured three others before fatally turning the weapon on himself. 

Anxious parents are directed to the waiting area at Central Park in Saugus to pick up their children after a shooting incident at Saugus High School on Thursday, November 14, 2019. Dan Watson/The Signal

Others sat in chairs at Grace Baptist Church, legs bouncing, hands over mouths, staring at the building’s doors where their children gathered behind, receiving psychological assessments and aid after having been closest to the violence.

Hours after the morning shooting, several students had exited homes near Centurion Way to reunite with friends after neighbors took them into shelter amid the active shooter incident. 

Anxious teenagers and parents wait to be reunited with evacuated Saugus High School students at Central Park in Saugus after a shooting incident at Saugus High School on Thursday, November 15, 2019. Dan Watson/The Signal

“Between the moment I found out and heard from (my granddaughter, a Saugus High student), it was absolutely frightening,” said Santa Clarita Councilwoman Marsha McLean, who reflected Friday on the morning of Nov. 14, when she was mayor.

Santa Clarita City Council members meet with former SCV Sheriff’s Captain Robert Lewis, right, after a press conference held at Central Park in Saugus regarding a shooting incident at Saugus High School on Thursday, November 14, 2019. Dan Watson/The Signal

The Santa Clarita Valley, like no time before, mourned in unison while at the same time divided on how to respond. But some families could only hear the clash of resounding arms. And, for those parents, siblings and loved ones, the response from those around them could not end in dark tatters. 

Rather, they needed their community to be #SaugusStrong. And they were, said Mayor Cameron Smyth. 

“That’s something that’s special about Santa Clarita,” he said Friday. “We know how to put arms around one another, support one another and you’ve seen a lot of instances of that over the last 12 months.” 

Coming Together 

In the days immediately following the shooting, which would later be determined to have been perpetrated by student Nathaniel Berhow, 16, the community appeared to turn a corner, wanting to support all those affected. There was no hesitation. 

The morning of Nov. 15, flowers, banners and signs with endearing messages faced toward the school, showcasing communitywide support, while some parents helped their teens cope as best they could. 

Students leave behind signs and flowers at a memorial outside Saugus High School to remember two students who died Thursday, Nov. 14 after a teenager opened fire on campus. Tammy Murga/ The Signal

Pacing in front of the campus, largely supported or left unbothered by those nearby, was Saugus High student Raeem Talukder, 16. He and his father walked back and forth in front of the school, his dad saying that he hoped the exercise would help his son — who had smelled gunpowder as he walked onto campus before turning and running the day of the shooting — not be afraid to return to campus. 

Saugus High School student Roeem Talukder, 16, left, gets a hug from his father Rafi in front of Saugus High School on Friday, November 15, 2019. Dan Watson/The Signal

Soon enough, storefronts would swap out “sale” displays for Centurion photos. City buses changed their electronic crawl to read #Saugus Strong and street signs in Saugus added the school’s logo (the letter “S” wearing a Centurion helmet). 

A Santa Clarita City bus arrives at the intersection of Centurion Way and Bouquet Canyon Road where city workers installed new street signs that carry the #SaugusStrong insignia in support of the Saugus High School shooting that claimed 3 students lives and injured 3 others, Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. Gilbert Bernal/The Signal

School football rivalries were put aside when West Ranch and Hart high school football players donned Saugus stickers on their helmets and rushed the field holding “S,” “H,” “S” letters, as students wore Centurion blue. The youth mobilized with fundraisers to support the victims’ families, organized spoken word and art sessions and handed out #SaugusStrong gear. 

Saugus students join students from West Ranch in the student section at Valencia High School for a playoff matchup between the Wildcats and Wilson Friday night. Cory Rubin/The Signal

Community togetherness was on full display Nov. 17 when thousands gathered for a vigil, organized by the city of Santa Clarita and Saugus alumni, held at the very same Central Park that signified some semblance of refuge for the Saugus students.

“Putting on an event like this in three days’ time would, in normal times, be unheard of, but our city staff came together and brought everyone together,” said McLean. 

Riley and Brady Muehlberger give a tearful speech about their sister, Gracie Anne Muehlberger at the Saugus Strong Vigil Sunday night. Cory Rubin/The Signal

“There was so much national and international news, and there was interviewing of people with so many narratives when it really wasn’t the right time,” said Sebastian Cazares, one of the primary student organizers for the vigil. “But at the end of the day, everybody was able to come together for the vigil, quiet down the noise … and everyone who was there you knew was from this town or went to Saugus.” 

Following the vigil, support for Saugus students and staff would continue; condolences and large commitments were made and followed through on to assist the families. Answers would be given over the next year, while some questions lingered. 

Saugus High School students Sophia Sinagra, left, Maria Ciccone, middle, and Sophia Perez, right, look at personalized messages written on the back of paper snowflakes taped to a wall on their campus Friday afternoon. February 28, 2020. Bobby Block / The Signal.

“While it’s been a year, (the tragedy and the victims) will never be forgotten and the community is still healing,” said Smyth. 

Here, in commemoration of the one-year anniversary, are a few of their stories, some of whom are speaking publicly for the first time.

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