Halton Arena on UNC Charlotte’s campus was packed Wednesday evening as thousands of people attended a vigil for the two students who were killed and four others who were injured during a fatal campus shooting on Tuesday.
About 8,000 people poured through the doors at Halton Arena to honor UNC Charlotte students Riley Howell and Ellis "Reed" Parlier, who were killed, and Drew Pescaro, Sean DeHart, Rami Al-Ramadhan and Emily Houpt, who were injured in the attack.
Police have charged a former UNCC student, Trystan Terrell, in the attack.
Dweller Parker met people at the door with boxes of tissues for those who needed them. He says he didn’t know the students but felt compelled to come out and help.
"It’s surreal. Wow. You see it on TV and see it here now. Wow. It’s hard to imagine that this could happen," Parker said. "I don’t know what to do. Right now, I’m just helping out to get my mind off things where I don’t have to think about it."
Brian Ornelas and other members of the Hispanic College Awareness Program were giving out snacks and coffee.
"At the moment, we’re recovering, but we’re just trying to remember them," Ornelas said. "You can’t forget those lost. They are still a part of our community."
Inside the arena, musicians played music fitting the somber mood of many students grieving their classmates who were wounded or killed when the shooter fired numerous rounds in their classroom. In an emotional speech during the vigil, UNCC’s Chancellor Philip Dubois called the incident senseless.
"The loss of Riley and Reed cuts to our core as a university community," Dubois said about the two students fatally wounded in the attack. "We’re heartsick. As parents ourselves, Lisa and I grieve for this senseless loss of young life and share in the anguish of their parents, families and you, their friends."
Students organized the vigil and, although the mayor, governor and other elected officials attended, with the exception of the chancellor, only students spoke. Student body President Chandler Crean and Khristine Slade, a senior and the main coordinator of the vigil, were emotional at times when speaking about the tragedy. Both echoed Dubois in his confidence that UNCC students, known as 49ers, would support each other and be OK.
"This does not stop here," Crean said. "We have to stay strong together, uplift each other, love each other and unite as one Niner nation."
"I have strength in knowing that as a community we will persevere and we will get through this event," Slade said. "We all cope and process what happened yesterday differently, but as a collective, we are Niner nation and we are Charlotte strong."
During the program, the UNCC women’s choir sang "Rain Come Down" by Shawn Kirchner. Emily Balson explained why they selected it.
"The song was written 20 years ago right after the Columbine shooting," Balson said. "He wrote about the next day after the Columbine shooting. It was raining, and he wrote the words, 'rain come down,' 'heaven’s tears are coming down,' so this really hit home."
Gabriel Bryant sang the solo parts.
"Singing those words to our classmates, I’m still kind of shaky from it at a time when we need healing and support, but I find peace in the gathering we had today to know our community can come together in a time like this," Bryant said
Outside a candlelight vigil was held where many described the program as touching and say they still feel safe on campus. But junior Zach Ader and graduate student Tonderai Mushipe say they don’t take that safety for granted.
"I read a lot of things from others saying you never think it would happen to your campus, and I believe that. But the gravity of the situation, it can happen to anyone at any point and that’s terrible," Ader said.
"There are a lot of open buildings so whether a mall, church or mosque, these are accessible, so it’s not that difficult for someone to walk in with a gun and shoot," Mushipe said. "That’s what sad about it. Next week, it could be another campus. I wish I had a more positive outlook."
As she made her way through the thousands of lit candles, with a bouquet of flowers in her arms, Gabby Zambrano, a friend and coworker of injured student Emily Houpt, had good news.
"She got shot in her back, but she was able to text me back and told me she was fine and she’s home now," Zambrano said.
UNC Charlotte Chancellor Dubois had this rallying call for the campus.
"UNC Charlotte cannot be and will not be defined by this tragedy," Dubois said. "We must be defined by how we respond to it."