Nation & World

'It could have been any of us': In mourning, Virginia Beach employees bond at Convention Center after mass shooting

A woman reacts during a prayer vigil for the victims of a Friday shooting incident in Virginia Beach, Virginia, U.S. June 1, 2019.  REUTERS/Jonathan Drake
A woman reacts during a prayer vigil for the victims of a Friday shooting incident in Virginia Beach, Virginia, U.S. June 1, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Thousands of city workers poured into the Convention Center on Monday morning to grieve their colleagues after an employee opened fire as people left work at the Municipal Center on Friday, killing 12 and critically injuring four.

A fire engine parked in front of the building displayed a large American flag, and a helicopter circled above.

“This is simply step one to wrap our minds and hearts around this senseless tragedy,” a city spokeswoman said in an email. “A time to give one another a ‘group hug.’”

Wesley Brown, 26, said counselors discussed ways to cope with the tragedy.

“They told us to try to get back to our normal activity,” said Brown, a public works employee who has family members who know two of the victims.

“It’s just shocking to me,” he said. “It could have been any of us.”

Kenyatta Lawrence, who works for the transportation division of the human services department, said there were moments of silence and photos of the victims shown.

“It was heartfelt,” Lawrence said. “It was just a loving experience.”

Lawrence’s division was working Monday, so when she started her day, she wrote a positive note on her office’s whiteboard with the message: “Be kind to one another, be thankful for the little things.”

“Tomorrow’s not promised to anyone,” Lawrence said.

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On Friday, Marcial Marcelo left his work at the information technology department early to go to a retirement party for his boss. He’s often in and out of Building 2 and works across the street. He hoped Monday’s gathering would help him understand why the shooting happened.

“This is an opportunity to try to get back to normalcy. It is not just going to take one day — it is going to take a lot of time to try and get back to where we were before this happened. This is going to linger on, and everyone deals with grief differently.”

Kristi Rines, the city’s recycling coordinator, said she’s ready to get back to work but appreciates having a day to pause and remember those who died.

“It is really nice to be able to bring everyone into the same space and work through emotions together, to grieve together,” Rines said. “The city is doing a great job of taking care of the employees and families.”

George Smith, a city employee for 21 years, said it was comforting for employees to gather together.

“It really hits you heavy,” said Smith, who works for the facilities management division of public works. “You easily could have been walking into that building.”

Sheriff Ken Stolle blended into a sea of deputies walking into the Convention Center.

“It is good to be together,” Stolle said. “Healing is the most important part.”

City employees were encouraged to write messages on rocks that will be placed in a memorial garden at the Municipal Center.

At the Princess Anne complex, where most city offices were closed except for the school administration building and the courthouse, people took a moment to remember their colleagues before everything reopens again tomorrow.

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Early Monday, Amber Hester, who works in the school administration building, walked near a memorial for the 12 shooting victims, wondering how many of those people she might have seen before walking around the 110-acre complex.

“It’s just somber. It’s surreal,” she said. “This is where we come to work every day. It’s just sad.”

Hillary Hedrick, a deputy clerk at the courthouse, echoed those thoughts, saying returning to work was “surreal.”

“It’s just sad knowing that some of our fellow Virginia Beach workers are not coming back today,” Hedrick said.

As people walked to a morning vigil at the school administration building, they passed Nala, a 3-year-old SPCA rescue dog brought by Nancy Liette, a procurement assistant .

“She’s just here to spread some love today,” Liette said.

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(Staff writers Margaret Matray and Jane Harper contributed to this report.)

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