FITCHBURG — Twenty-one candles lined the walkway, and a bell tolled 21 times as the names of each of those lost in the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting were read at the somber and reverent candlelight vigil held on the Upper Common Wednesday evening.
“I’m tired of saying ‘thoughts and prayers,’ ” said Police Chief Ernest Martineau. “Every candle represents a life.”
Fitchburg Rotary Club President Alexander Vera spearheaded the vigil held the day following the Tuesday tragedy. A vigil was also held in the tightknit Uvalde community on Wednesday night, where families of the victims and the community at large are reeling following the incident that President Biden described as “carnage.” He called for lawmakers “to act” when it comes to gun control.
Mayor Stephen DiNatale, City Councilor Sam Squailia, state Rep. Michael Kushmerek, D-Fitchburg, three police officers and nearly two dozen community members attended the remembrance ceremony.
“Texas may seem really far away, but this really hits home,” Vera said. “The wound is very fresh. We need to pray for those lost babies.”
Amy Ramos of Fitchburg came to the vigil along with one of her five daughters. Ramos, who attends Pulse Church in Leominster, spoke to those assembled about one of her other daughters, a 13-year-old who attends Longsjo Middle School, whom she said told her is now afraid to go to school.
“I have to reassure them,” Ramos said. She later offered up a prayer during which she said, “we all need to come together and put prayer first.”
Ramos’ daughter Meghan Ramos lives down the street from the vigil and decided to attend it with her boyfriend Douglas Allen after hearing about it from her mom. Meghan said they are trying to find ways to “give back to those parents, anything we can do to show our condolences.”
Tina Peters, of Westminster, had tears in her eyes as she talked about having “a lot of reasons” why she wanted to be there.
“I’m just devastated,” she said as her voice broke, mentioning her young grandchildren who remind her of the 19 fourth-graders who were killed. “I haven’t been right all day. I wanted to come and pay tribute.”
Vera read each of the names of the 19 young students and two teachers who died in the shooting, pausing at one point to collect himself, as Kushmerek rang a bell after each name and DiNatale helped man the bell.
“It breaks my heart to think something like this could happen,” Meghan Ramos said before directly addressing the police officers and thanking them for keeping the community safe.
“School safety is my No. 1 priority,” Martineau said, adding that people should also keep the first responders in mind along with the devastated families and those affected by the massacre.
“Remember the men and women,” he said. “What they saw yesterday no human should ever see.”
As the parent of a newborn, Kushmerek said he “can’t imagine sending my child off to school and not having him come back.”
“The grief that community is feeling I can’t even begin to imagine,” he said. “How do we move on as a society?”
He touched on the mental health crisis that many feel is an underlying issue when it comes to gun violence, saying that “we have failed on the mental health level” and that he hopes this brings more awareness to the deep-rooted issue that has become an even bigger problem due to the pandemic.
“We owe it to those 19 children,” Kushmerek said.
Vera invited the community members present to say a few words if they wished.
“You don’t have to be religious to be kind,” he said before a man came up and said a prayer into the microphone.
“They are the innocent, the children of this world.”
Debra Graham, who owns and operates Kingston Island Cuisine on Main Street along with family, attended the vigil with her husband.
“I just hope the love we have in our hometown of Fitchburg reaches the parents in Texas,” she said. “We can only imagine the pain they are feeling. It’s not just Texas that’s hurting, it’s Massachusetts that hurts with them and the city of Fitchburg hurts too.”