NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Hundreds of people gathered Wednesday at a candlelight vigil in Nashville to honor and mourn the three children and three adults who were killed in a shooting at a Christian school this week.
The downtown ceremony for the victims of the shooting at The Covenant School was largely somber and silent and filled with young people. First lady Jill Biden and singer Sheryl Crow were among those attending, as were civic leaders including the mayor and police chief.
“Just two days ago was our city’s worst day,” Mayor John Cooper said. “I so wish we weren’t here, but we need to be here.”
Earlier in the day, Pope Francis sent condolences to the city and offered prayers to those affected.
Police have said a 28-year-old former student drove up to the school Monday morning, shot out the glass doors, entered and began firing indiscriminately.
The dead were identified as as students Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs and William Kinney, all 9 years old; Katherine Koonce, 60, the head of the school; substitute teacher Cynthia Peak, 61; and custodian Mike Hill, also 61.
Authorities have not yet determined the shooter’s motive but say the assailant did not target specific victims.
Another performer featured at the vigil, musician Margo Price, has been particularly vocal about Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s position on state gun laws. In response to the shooting, Price tweeted: “Our children are dying and being shot in school, but you’re more worried about drag queens than smart gun laws? You have blood on your hands.”
Lee said late Tuesday that Peak was a close friend of his wife, Maria, and that the two had been planning to meet for dinner after Peak’s work that day.
“Maria woke up this morning without one of her best friends,” Lee said in a video statement, adding that his wife once taught with Peak and Koonce. The women, he said, “have been family friends for decades.”
Crow has also pushed for stricter gun-control laws and released a tribute song to the 20 children and six adults who were killed in 2012 at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. She responded to a tweet from Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee in which Blackburn said she and her husband were “heartbroken” over the shooting and that she and her office stood “ready to assist.”
“If you are ready to assist,” Crow tweeted, “please pass sensible gun laws so that the children of Tennessee and America at large might attend school without risk of being gunned down.”
“Our hearts are just broken with the pain and sorrow of knowing that parents in our community had to identify the bodies of their children today who were murdered yesterday in classrooms with assault rifles — thinking about what that must have been like as a parent of a 9-year- old,” said Ketch Secor, another musician who was attending Wednesday’s vigil.
Cooper and Democratic Rep. Harold Love Jr. have also called for stronger gun-control measures. The Republican-led Statehouse has largely rebuffed such calls.
Pastor George Grant, a leader with the Nashville Presbytery, steered clear of the political debate.
“As pundits and politicians try to make sense out of the senseless, we’re not really asking why. We know why — we live in a broken, fallen world,” Grant said. The church linked to the school is a member of the presbytery, which includes congregations in middle Tennessee and southwestern Kentucky.
In a blog post published Wednesday, Grant recounted how notifications about an active shooter at the school interrupted a presbytery planning meeting that included Chad Scruggs, Covenant Presbyterian Church pastor and father of one of the shooting victims.
“We emptied into the hallway, stricken, eyes clouded with unbelief, horror and grief. … Our worst fears were realized,” Grant wrote.
Police said the shooter, identified as Audrey Hale, was under a doctor’s care for an undisclosed emotional disorder and was not on the radar of police before the attack. Hale was fatally shot by police at the school Monday.
Authorities have given unclear information on Hale’s gender.
For hours Monday, police identified the shooter as a woman. Later in the day, the police chief said Hale was transgender. In an email Tuesday, a police spokesperson said Hale “was assigned female at birth” but used masculine pronouns on a social media profile.
Maria Colomy, a former teacher at the Nossi College of Art & Design in Nashville, recalled Hale as a talented artist while a student in Colomy’s social media class in 2017. Colomy remembered Hale “going above and beyond” on projects.”
She said she saw postings on Facebook during the past year in which Hale wrote about the death of a romantic partner and asked to be called by a male name and male pronouns.
Hale had “been very publicly grieving” on Facebook, Colomy said. “It was during that grief (Hale) said, ’In this person’s honor, I am going to be the person who I want to be, and I want to be called Aiden.'”
On Hale’s first day at the Nossi School, Colomy said she saw Hale become frustrated while trying to log into the student portal and start to cry.
“I went up to (Hale) and said, ‘Hey, if you need to step out, it’s totally OK,'” Colomy said. But after that, Colomy said Hale began to feel safe at school and “really started thriving.”
Samira Hardcastle, who attended both middle and high school with Hale, said Hale seemed sweet and socially awkward. Hardcastle said she spoke to Hale briefly last month at an event for a mutual friend, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
As a middle school teacher, Hardcastle said, she is still processing what happened.
“I don’t think we can rationalize irrational actions, so I am just trying to make peace with that,” she said.
AP Religion News Editor Holly Meyer in Nashville and News Verification Reporter Beatrice Dupuy in New York contributed to this report.