Hugs and tears marked Tuesday night's prayer vigil at Centreville Presbyterian Church as nearly 400 people came together to mourn those killed Monday morning at Virginia Tech.
WESTFIELD HIGH grads came from Pennsylvania, North Carolina and elsewhere to commiserate with and comfort each other and to honor their former Westfield classmates, Erin Peterson and Reema Samaha, who were among the victims.
"It's just a huge devastation," said Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) before the service began. "Everybody has ties [to them]. Everybody knew somebody who knew somebody [at Virginia Tech], so this is just rippling through the community. And, of course, it's hardest on the Westfield students."
"It touches everybody," he continued. "People don't know what to say or do. The night before, everything's perfectly normal; and the next morning, everything changes — and it's just so senseless."
Frey also hoped that people won't hold it against all Koreans because the shooter, Cho Seung-Hui, was Korean. Noting Centreville's rapidly growing Korean population, Frey said, "The Korean community is a subset of the larger community — but we are one community, and we are all grieving."
Earlier that afternoon, national media descended on Centreville after it was revealed that Seung-Hui was also a Westfield grad. Bringing sound trucks, satellite hookups, wires, cable, microphones, cameras and tripods, they set up shop on Stonecroft Boulevard across the street from Westfield.
They also established a beachhead along Sully Park Drive, since Seung-Hui's family lives in a townhouse in the Truitt Farm Drive cul-de-sac off that street. It's about a football-field-away from Stone Middle School and — wishing to make sure his young students weren't bothered as they walked home past the media circus at 3:15 p.m. — Principal Ken Gaudreault escorted them himself.
Meanwhile, Gabriela Tasende, a seven-year resident of that neighborhood in Centreville's Sully Station community, described it as a peaceful, quiet place. "Everybody's very nice," she said. "And I thought it was safe and family-oriented."
"YESTERDAY, I was watching the news [about the mass murder at Virginia Tech], and it seemed so far away," said Tasende. "And today [Tuesday] it's right in our backyard. You always think this happens elsewhere. But it's true — things like this do happen in your neighborhood. We still think it's safe, though, but it's very sad that this happened."
The tragedy was also personal for Jenny Phipps of Herndon. Her son is a fifth-grader at Herndon Elementary, and his teacher is Mona Samaha, Reema's mother. Phipps said students there were told Tuesday about the death of their teacher's child. "The kids were visibly upset," she said. "It's been an ordeal for everyone."
Besides that, said Phipps, "My husband and I both graduated from Virginia Tech, so it hit close to home for us. I'm devastated because it's such an idyllic, little community and I always felt safe there; it was a safe haven. But it's just one kid gone psycho — one bad egg — so I still think it's a safe place."
Phipps said Herndon Elementary parents are "here to support [the Samahas] and would love to help however we can. We'll definitely have them in our prayers."
And prayers for both the injured and the departed were said during Tuesday night's vigil at Centreville Presbyterian. Westfield High senior Sammy Luffy, a theater student like Reema, led the opening prayer.
"Dear Father, we need to see the reason and the purpose for what happened yesterday," she said. "We know we can make this life worth living if we live each day to the fullest. We need to be together to get through this Lord."
And Westfield grads such as Branson Reese, Kevin Manship, Dallas Sweezy and others who knew either Erin or Reema, came home to Centreville this week to remember their fallen friends and share their grief.
"My oldest son Branson was privileged to share the stage with Reema on many occasions," said Nancy Reese. "He knew she was missing all day [Monday] and, like her other friends, repeatedly tried to contact her throughout that horrible day. We would check in frequently with one another to see if either one had heard any news."
Branson was away at college in Pittsburgh and, as soon as he and the other Westfield theater alums learned of Reema's death, said Reese, "They all just wanted to be together. His friend, Dallas Sweezy, drove over from another college, and together they made the trip home on Tuesday."
BRANSON'S YOUNGER brother, Ben, was Reema's dance partner in Westfield's spring musical, "Oklahoma," last year. "Reema taught him to dance and was so patient with him as he learned the steps," said Nancy Reese. "He felt so lucky to have had the chance to work with her so closely. My daughter also knew Reema and thought the world of her."
The Rev. Neil Craigan, associate pastor at Centreville Presbyterian, told those assembled Tuesday night to "take a look at the faces — the community gathers after this tragic event, and sadness permeates us all. We're a partner in education with Westfield High, and our hearts are with you tonight."
"Over the last 36 hours, we've witnessed senseless violence that leaves us shaken and unbalanced," he said. "We know it's not supposed to be this way and, 36 hours later, we still have questions."
Craigan said it's only natural for people to be asking: "How could something like this have happened? Where was God in the midst of this? Why didn't He stop this from happening? How could He have allowed this?"
But the pastor said how people ask the questions will help determine the answers they'll receive. He told them to ask, "If there were no God, would there still be violence and suffering in the world?" And he said the answer would be "yes."
"So who then is to blame?" asked Craigan. "Or is the responsibility on broken sinful people — people who are not whole?" He then told the crowd, "In spite of the brokenness and pain you feel right now, if you look to Jesus Christ, you'll see there is hope."
"Does God care? Yes," said Craigan. "Was God there? Yes. Does God understand pain and suffering? Look to the cross and see what God has experienced for us. Is God here? Yes. Jesus said, 'Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.' Lord, it's hard to believe we will be comforted, because the pain runs so deep. But we know You are with us."
Then Sharon Hoover, the church's director of Youth Ministries, led everyone in individual and group, guided prayers. As she prayed, photos of Erin and Reema were shown on two, large screens, plus the names of all the Virginia Tech fatalities.
Several people throughout the room sobbed audibly, and whoever wanted to could light candles in honor of those who had died. They also translated their feelings into words on two, large banners for the Peterson and Samaha families.
Centreville's Meg Crossett, whose daughter Sarah is at Virginia Tech, said Monday marked the third time in less than a year that "the kids from Westfield High have been locked down and under siege from a gunman." The first time was May 8, 2006, when a shooter attacked police officers at the nearby Sully District Station. The second time was when a gunman was loose on Virginia Tech's campus on the first day of school, and the third time was Monday.
Lisa Halterman, whose husband Don played guitar at the prayer vigil, ached for everything these students have gone through. "I hate to see their innocence dragged away from them so young," she said. They get thrown into this big, bad world too soon."
"I LOST MY SISTER when I was in seventh grade, 37 years ago, and you don't get over it," continued Halterman. "I go on with my life, but I think about her every day. Our son Daniel is a Westfield senior and is off to Tech next year. But I'm not worried because I have a deep faith in God and, when it's your time to go home, you do."
Tuesday, the words students wrote on the banners to Peterson and Samaha echoed Halterman's thoughts. Alex Harper wrote to Peterson, "I love you so much, Erin. You're in a better place. I couldn't have asked for a better teammate." And Meredith F. wrote to Peterson, "God bless Virginia Tech ... I pray that you are in heaven having a party with Jesus."
Similarly, Westfield theater student Garrett Henson wrote to Samaha, "You touched all of our hearts with your generosity, humor and pure love ... You were an angel on earth and we will all miss you. Just don't forget: 'Angels never die.'"