AURORA, Colo. — They began arriving hours before the prayer vigil began Sunday, lugging shattered hearts as a thunderstorm crackled and light rain fell.
By the time thousands had gathered outside Aurora’s City Hall amid noticeably tight security, the sun had penetrated the clouds and the day’s stifling heat had lifted.
As authorities continued to amass evidence in Friday’s massacre inside an Aurora movie theater, Coloradans sought strength in the face of madness, packing church services and coming together as a community to remember the 12 who died.
They were joined by President Barack Obama, who met with victims and families at the University of Colorado Hospital, a short drive from where their lives were upended. He quoted from the Bible, Revelations 21:4.
“Scripture says that ‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more. Neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away,'” Obama said.
Obama thanked police for their quick response and relayed the story of two friends, Allie Young, 19, and Stephanie Davies, 21, who were watching “The Dark Knight Rises” when the gunman stormed the theater.
As a man flung at least one gas or smoke canister and opened fire with an assault-style rifle, Young stood up to cry out a warning, Obama said, and was immediately shot in the neck. Her wound spurting blood, she dropped to the floor. Davies dragged her out of the aisle, dropped down with her and stuck her fingers in the wound to apply pressure.
Young told her to flee, Obama said, but Davies refused, staying until police arrived and arrested the suspect. Then, he said, Davies and others carried Young across two parking lots to ambulances.
She’s going to be fine, he said.
“I don’t know how many people at any age would have had the presence of mind that Stephanie did, or the courage that Allie showed,” Obama said. People like them “represent what’s best in us, and they assure us that out of this darkness a brighter day is going to come.”
Across the street from the movie theater, a man who had placed 15 crosses near Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., after a 1999 massacre had returned to Colorado with 12 crosses for the victims of Friday’s shooting.
Greg Zanis of Aurora, Ill., put up the 3 1/2-foot-tall crosses Sunday on a hill across the street from the Century 16 theater.
Aurora resident Heather Lebedoff, 24, placed a rose on each cross. She said she didn’t know anyone in the theater, but she felt connected to her neighbors and all the pain they have gone through.
“This is the city I live in, and I know there are a lot of people affected by this. Stuff like this really shows what love and community is all about.”
Earlier, a federal law enforcement official said the shooter’s AR-15 rifle jammed, and he switched to another weapon. Police have said they don’t know how many rounds the shooter fired.
As Obama finished speaking and left Colorado for previously scheduled events in the San Francisco Bay Area, the somber crowd at the nearby Aurora Municipal Center listened as clergy and civic leaders talked of perseverance and remembrance.
“It was almost like somehow God had come down and picked the most alive and vibrant people, and taken them from us,” Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said. But “history tells us the pain of something like this never goes away completely, but we do get stronger and it will get easier to move forward. It will take days, or months, or even longer.”
Responding to requests from victims’ families who want their loved ones, not the shooter, remembered, Hickenlooper did not say the suspect’s name.
“In our house, we’re just going to call him Suspect A,” he said.
Obama also refused to name James E. Holmes. “Although the perpetrator of this evil act has received a lot of attention over the last couple of days, that attention will fade away, and in the end, after he has felt the full force of our justice system, what will be remembered are the good people who were impacted by this tragedy,” he said.
Many at the vigil wept. Others closed their eyes in prayer or looked on in a daze. People walked up to police officers, strangers, shook their hands and thanked them for their response.
“Do you want some water?” asked a young boy, offering his bottle to police Detective Lance Dyer, who politely declined.
“I want to thank you as well,” said Mark Bogati, 59, a self-described biker who said he has had his share of trouble with the law. “God bless.”
One young boy drew gasps and tears with a simple handwritten placard:
Roses are red
Violets are blue
This is a tragedy
I’m so sorry for you
“While our hearts are broken, our community is not,” Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan told the crowd. “Our community will be with you as you leave this place tonight. The pain is still raw, and the healing has yet to begin, but know that (the community) will do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to help you. That is what families do. And we are a family.”
Nearby, a makeshift memorial formed a mass of pink in honor of victim Micayla Medek, who loved the pink-clad Hello Kitty. A boy wearing baggy white jeans tucked a pink scrap of cloth into his pocket. His fedora was lined with Hello Kitty trim.
Melissa Cutshaw’s daughter, Kimber Avra, was in Theater 9 with Medek and five other friends. Medek, 23, was the only one of the group struck down.
“It’s hard,” said Cutshaw. “It’s hard to think my child almost didn’t make it out. And then to know someone who died, it’s heartbreaking. I need people. I need everyone here. They know how I feel.”
“It shows you’re not alone,” said Cutshaw’s son, Jacob, 16.
As prayers were offered at the vigil, many wiped away tears and parents held their children a little tighter.
“I don’t want to leave him out of my sight,” said Brittnay Kilgore, who stood with her 12-year-old son, Tyler, at the back of the crowd. “All I can say is, God is probably as brokenhearted as I am.”
Others were equally shaken. Hickenlooper called out Mikayla’s name and the names of the 11 other people who died.
With each name, the crowd responded:
“We will remember.”
As the memorial ended, Ashley Talmage, 23, held a candle and thought about her friend Farrah Soudani, hospitalized in critical condition. Soudani, 22, has had two surgeries to remove shrapnel and needs another, Talmage said, but doesn’t have health insurance.
The crowd began to disperse, but Talmage didn’t want to extinguish her flame. She watched as others joined hands, formed a circle in the field and bowed their heads for a while longer. Eventually, as it began to rain, the circle was broken and the candles went out.