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Oregon shooting: Vigil’s silence is broken by a call for unity

There was no good way to find out. Alexa Evans, 20, was about to leave home for Umpqua Community College when she got a strange text message from a friend that didn’t make sense.

The next text was terrifyingly clear: “A girl was shot.”

For the next few hours after a mass shooting at the school Thursday, the young students of UCC messaged, called, Facebooked and tweeted one another, checking for signs of life. If Evans’ friends didn’t answer her calls, she kept calling. If she didn’t have their phone numbers, she prayed for them.

FULL COVERAGE: Oregon college shooting >>

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“You just hope you don’t hear a name you don’t want to hear,” Evans said of the victims.

So as Evans and dozens of other UCC students converged on Stewart Park with a crowd of hundreds for an 8 p.m. vigil, it was as much in search of information as comfort. They nodded in recognition and relief, and bounced a basic question off one another like sonar: Are you OK?

When public officials’ remarks at the vigil started and swiftly ended, an awkward silence fell over the crowd, with people unsure of whether to go or stay. Then, a UCC shooting survivor, Cassandra Welding, and another young woman suddenly yelled out into the silence that had fallen over the hundreds, “I am UCC!”

There was a beat of silence, then someone else in the crowd called out in response.

“I am UCC!”

“I am UCC!”

“I am UCC!”

“WE are UCC!”

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Welding huddled with a group of about eight young women in a circle, including Evans, holding candles and wrapping their free arms around each other. Some of the women sobbed as someone beat a solemn drum somewhere out in the crowd.

“Do you know anybody who went to UCC?” a young man standing nearby asked the young women.

“We all do,” several of them quickly replied.

The young women veered between sobs and giggles and silence and talk as other members of the crowd filled the night with song and prayer. They remembered their losses; they tried to dab each other’s eyes without burning each other with their candles.

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“I can’t reach, sorry.”

“So much love, let’s bring this love in.”

“It’s hard, we all go to school with these people.”

“One minute they’re there, one minute they’re not there.”

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“Don’t set me on fire.”

The group’s mood had improved until the moment a young boy came to the microphone set up in the park and led the vigil in a prayer.

“I pray that” -- the boy stopped for several seconds before continuing -- “everyone that is not with us is in heaven, Lord.”

Sobs erupted from the group of young women again.

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After the moment finally subsided, one of them added, “He’s so cute.”

The women lingered together for a while, along with hundreds of residents peacefully milling in the park. Someone laid out candles to spell out UCC on the ground, but several of the candle holders caught on fire and had to be stamped out indecorously. A group of kids sat cross-legged on the ground, held hands and prayed fervently.

“I’ll remember this moment for the rest of my life,” Welding said, looking around. “I don’t want to leave yet.”

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