They were young men who could grind through a particularly grueling football practice or set their friends laughing with a look. They danced, or painted, or did their best to sing along in the car to Adele. A week ago, they were alive.
Six days after a University of Virginia student opened fire aboard a bus returning from a field trip — killing three of his fellow students and wounding two others — thousands gathered for a memorial Saturday afternoon to remember and honor the dead.
On a day when the U-Va. community was slated to watch its football players face off against opponents from Coastal Carolina University, it was instead crowded into John Paul Jones Arena to watch those same players share memories of their teammates.
The funereal mood could not have been more different from the valedictory atmosphere typical of college athletics in early November. In a season of cold but bright afternoons, suffused with football cheers and tailgaters’ grill smoke, U-Va.’s students and staff filed into the darkened arena and quietly took their seats surrounding a stage decorated with the victims’ smiling photos.
They were greeted not by a collegiate fight song but by the mournful words of “On the Turning Away,” a Pink Floyd song performed by The Virginia Gentlemen, a student a cappella group:
It’s a sin that somehow
Light is changing to shadow
Inside and outside the university, people are struggling to understand what motivated suspect Christopher Darnell Jones Jr. to allegedly carry out the killings last Sunday. And some are wondering whether university officials could have done more to prevent the tragedy.
On Thursday, Virginia’s state attorney general announced the appointment of a special counsel to review how university officials gauged the danger Jones posed to the campus. U-Va. officials say the 22-year-old had come to the attention of an internal threat-assessment team after another student reported that Jones said he had a gun. University officials requested and are cooperating with the attorney general’s review.
Jones was arrested and is being held in custody as Virginia State Police investigate the fatal shootings. Students Mike Hollins and Marlee Morgan are recovering from injuries they suffered.
Americans have grown familiar with the rituals of grief that attend mass shootings, but they have never grown accustomed to them. As they filed into the arena shortly before the memorial service began, dressed in suits and ties, the university’s football players wore slightly dazed expressions. The same look could be seen on the faces of many in the audience as they stood in silence for the entrance and seating of the victims’ families.
“I hope that we can take a measure of solace in being together to remember and to honor them,” U-Va. President Jim Ryan said of the victims as the ceremony began. “Shared grief is a powerful reminder that it is our bonds with each other and with a common community that matter more than our perceived differences and give us the strength to endure.”
Just over 9,000 people gathered at the memorial in Charlottesville on Saturday afternoon, university officials said. The live-streamed event came after a student-organized vigil on Monday night. Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) attended but did not speak.
Folding chairs were set up across the arena’s floor, the front rows reserved for the victims’ families — and for the football players who made up the extended family that Chandler, Perry and Davis had joined in young adulthood.
Those players did much of the speaking on Saturday afternoon, and it was in their words — halted by long silences, sometimes disjointed as they followed sudden stirrings of memory — that the dead were most vividly present.
Elijah Gaines recalled his teammate Davis’s pride in his somewhat obscure hometown of Ridgeville, S.C. Davis, 20, made it sound like Ridgeville, with its population of 1,500, was “the biggest city in the world,” Gaines said.
But it wasn’t until Gaines asked his teammate about the meaning of one of his tattoos, the number 187, that he understood the depth of his devotion to the place where he had grown up: It is the number of the town’s exit off Interstate 26.
Hunter Stewart recalled attempting unlikely duets with his fellow linebacker, Perry, as they listened to Adele. He said that Perry, a 22-year-old studio art major, was a “Renaissance man” whose talents didn’t necessarily extend to this particular form of singalong.
“We aren’t really blessed with the vocals to sing that kind of music,” Stewart said, smiling. “But we persevered and sung anyway.”
Cody Brown read aloud from a letter he had composed to the 20-year-old Chandler.
“You were always the first player in the end zone to celebrate when someone scored,” he said.
They were recollections that brought sporadic laughter and frequent tears. But it was another line from Brown’s letter that seemed to best express the feeling that hung over the thousands of still people seated in John Paul Jones Arena.
“It was never supposed to be this way,” he said.