More than 200 people stood quietly on Turlington Plaza on Tuesday night, and, among them, a cohort dressed in maroon and white cried.
About 70 alumni of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School stood in a group at a candlelight vigil after a school shooting killed 17 people in Parkland, Florida a week before. About 10 alumni shared stories of the victims and talked about the strength of their South Florida community. The vigil was organized by alumnus Zach Xu, who visited Parkland a day after he heard the news.
A poster with 17 names and ages of those killed in the shooting read “Eagles soar higher” and “#NeverAgain.” Pink, white and red roses and Stoneman Douglas shirts adorned the Turlington table the poster was propped up on.
Zach Xu stopped to hug every alumnus from his high school clad in maroon, silver and burgundy on Turlington Plaza.
Standing there with him for a vigil he organized, the 20-year-old said he felt a sense of comradery.
The UF finance sophomore brought together the candlelight vigil at UF so his peers could express their grief after a shooter killed 17 people in the hallways and classrooms of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
After spending time with a friend who lost his sister in the shooting, Xu made a Facebook event, calling on alumni to come together for a candlelight vigil on Turlington Plaza on Tuesday night. Xu said he heard about the shooting from an online article that said there was a shooting at a South Florida school.
“Nothing can prepare you to see your hometown on that camera,” he told more than 200 people at the vigil. “If this can happen in Parkland, Florida, this can happen anywhere else.”
Xu organized to have about ten other speakers, including alumni who lost friends. Xu said the most important part of the vigil was hearing from the Parkland community at UF.
Xu will also speak at UF’s official vigil event Wednesday.
He said he is inspired by the efforts of current Stoneman Douglas students to address legislators and change the country’s gun laws.
“It absolutely blows my mind that these senators think assault rifles should be legal,” he said. “I’m waiting for someone with a brain to take over.”
For 10 minutes, Andrew Steele felt alone when he found out his former school was under attack.
The 19-year-old UF business sophomore was at his girlfriend’s home when a friend texted him from the school mentioning a school shooting. He checked online and saw nothing.
“The first time a story showed up, it was 2:50 p.m., and it was rudimentary,” he said.
News was slow to come in. It wasn’t until later that night he found out he knew one of the 17 killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. It was a former swimming and water polo teammate, Nicholas Dworet.
“I cried, and I cried,” he said.
Steele spoke at the Tuesday vigil on Turlington Plaza about his connections to the victims of the shooting and his alma mater.
“It’s been weird seeing people have to bury their siblings and have to run from a place they thought was safe,” he said.
Wearing his maroon Stoneman Douglas water polo shirt, he remembered the life of his lost teammate, who he said was one of the best and most determined athletes he’d ever seen.
He told the crowd he visited Dworet’s family Saturday and read from a note he found by Dworet’s bed.
“I will give all that I have in my body and my mind to achieve this goal I have set,” Steele quoted Dworet, who planned to go to the Tokyo Olympics. “I will let nothing stand in my way.”