After five years, the light has not faded on UF’s remembrance of the lives lost in the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.
About 100 people gathered at Plaza of the Americas for a candlelit vigil Tuesday to commemorate the tragedy's 19 victims — 17 who died in the shooting and two who died by suicide after — on its fifth anniversary. The event was organized by March for Our Lives Gainesville, a local chapter of the national organization.
Four student speakers — Rachel Taylor, Emily Bernstein, Piper Dowdell and Brandon Abzug — shared heartfelt speeches about their friends, classmates and teachers who died in the shooting and pleaded for an end to gun violence.
For Taylor, a 20-year-old UF business junior who survived the MSD shooting, Valentine’s Day is an oxymoron. She still finds herself wondering whether she could have prevented any of the victims’ deaths, she said.
“For all those who bear the same trauma and guilt these five years later, just know you're not alone,” Taylor said. “There's nothing you could have done.”
Before the shooting, Taylor said she’d watch recaps of mass shootings on the news with her father, never knowing it would eventually hit so close to home. While she is glad to be here today, she will forever carry the weight of those lost.
“I'm here for each and every one of you and understand that these may be some of the hardest days of your lives,” Taylor said. “I commend you for being brave and for pushing through the pain to bring good into the world.”
Dowdell gave a teary-eyed speech about her friend and victim of the shooting, Cara Loughran.
“There's no way to describe the feeling of losing someone important to you, so I'm not going to try to,” she said. “Cara was one of the most amazing people I've ever met. It breaks my heart to know all these beautiful angels had to feel the same fear Cara did.”
While we can’t change the past, we can work toward a future where no one has to endure this pain again, she said, emphasizing teenagers shouldn’t be dying at the hands of gun violence.
The last to the microphone was Abzug, a first-year UF law student, who spoke in awe of his friends and former classmates Carmen Schentrup, who died during the shooting, and Sydney Aiello, who died by suicide one year later. This was his third year speaking at the vigil.
“We lost a part of ourselves, friends and our high school family that day,” Abzug said.
Abzug often reflects on his life before and after the shooting and how the experience impacted his innocence, he said. He encouraged people to look after one another in times of tragedy.
“Everyone has something that they carry with them, scars that are both invisible and apparent to the naked eye,” he said. “Reach out to an old friend and be kind to others.”
While he can no longer be with his former classmates, Abzug said their legacies and humanity will live on forever.
“By remembering and honoring them today, we are helping to be the change we wish to see in the world,” he said. “That will make all the difference.”
Once the speakers concluded, Taylor, an organizer, read out the names of the 19 lost as former president of March for Our Lives Gainesville and event organizer Alyson Moriarty lit a candle for each victim. This was followed by a 19-second moment of silence.
Attendees placed candles and flowers by the 17 lanterns lined along the plaza. As the crowd diminished, groups of students huddled to hug and console each other.
Ethan Benson, a 22-year-old UF accounting senior and former MSD student, was inside the school during the shooting and attended the vigil to devote time to remembering a day he does not always want to think about.
“If there is a day to think about it, today's the day,” he said.
He also enjoyed reconnecting with those he no longer sees often and watching the MSD community unite on a day that is difficult for so many, he said.
The U.S. gun violence epidemic needs to change, Benson said, mentioning the Feb. 13 mass shooting at Michigan State University. He doesn’t think sensible gun legislation should be a controversial subject in American politics, he said.
“It's not politics, it's just common sense,” Benson said. “People shouldn't have to go to school and think, ‘Oh, I could die today.’”
Nikolas Cruz, who shot and killed the 17 victims, was sentenced to life in prison in November. The decision left family members of the victims and MSD alumni shocked and frustrated.
Although March for Our Lives Gainesville is no longer a registered student organization with UF, Moriarty said it’s important to organize this annual vigil to remember the devastating impacts of gun violence.
“If that light has dimmed over the past few years, because of the prevalence of gun violence, this is a good way to remember why we're doing what we do,” she said. “Why we fight to prevent more senseless deaths.”
Contact Amanda at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandasfriedman.
Amanda Friedman is a senior journalism major and the East Gainesville reporter for The Alligator. When she isn't reporting, she loves watching A24 movies, listening to Ariana Grande and reading books she found on TikTok.