Hundreds gathered at Pine Trail Park in Parkland on Thursday afternoon for a collective moment of silence at 2:35 p.m. That was the exact moment a day earlier that 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz opened fire on his former classmates and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
It was one of a handful of gatherings intended to help residents of the small, tranquil city in Northwest Broward County cope with the worst school shooting in Florida history. Family, friends and community members trickled into the park throughout the morning, where they were met by Red Cross volunteers passing out water, food, and stuffed animals.
Ruben Ramsaran, a pastor from Calvary Chapel of Fort Lauderdale, said many volunteers, including those without professional counseling degrees like himself, had been there for hours, offering advice and support to whomever needed it. They did what they could do but in some cases, more help will clearly be needed.
“One little girl watched both of her friends die. There was not much we could do for her besides tell her parents to bring her to a real counselor,” Ramsaran said. “But another little boy, who also watched his friends die, just said, ‘I’m strong.’ He just needed to know that he could get past this. So we encouraged him. We told him, ‘This does not define you.’”
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The event spread across the sunny park, with grief counseling and spiritual services offered inside the recreational center, and conversation and speeches taking place out back. In the back field, a crowd gathered around a raised flower bed, as town commissioners and Parkland Vice Mayor Stacy Kagan prepared to make their remarks.
“All of these people are your family, all of these people are your friends,” added Parkland Commissioner Ken Cutler.
Parkland Commissioner Grace Solomon advised the crowd not to keep their feelings bottled up, but to talk and share with each other.
“This is a close-knit community,” she said. “I’m sure that almost everyone here, myself included, lost someone they cared about yesterday.”
Deputy Fire Chief Michael McNally, a 1993 graduate of Stoneman Douglas, urged residents to take solace in one another and also implored the crowd to hydrate to keep safe in the unseasonable heat.
Congressman Ted Deutch, a Democrat whose district includes Parkland, also spoke at the informal service, noting that people in Washington of both parties had approached him with their condolences.
“We are all grieving together,” Deutch said.
Kyle Leforge, a chaplain so young he resembled much of the crowd he addressed, led the group in a prayer.
“I pray for community like we’ve never had before,” Leforge said. “I pray for overwhelming peace.”
Moments later, Vice Mayor Kagan announced the time was 2:35 p.m. The sprawling crowd quieted and bowed their heads. For a full minute, they stood in silence together.