Hours after three football players were killed and two additional students were injured in an on-campus shooting, thousands of students united at a vigil of support and solidarity.
Editors’ note: This story contains details of a mass casualty event and gun violence.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.—They marched from every corner of the University of Virginia campus, wrapped in blankets, sweaters and jackets, donning ski caps, baseball hats and hoodies.
They sat cross-legged or stood tall in the back. They squatted on the grass or leaned against pillars. They embraced one another in tear-filled hugs. Some even knelt on concrete to pray.
College students should be loud, boisterous. But on Monday night, if you listened closely, you instead heard the slightest weeping. A cough or two. The crunching of feet over fallen autumn foliage. Whispers into the chilly night. Some muffled cries.
They gathered here on The Lawn, the large, grassy court at the center of the grounds—their lit phones and candle lights raised high above their heads providing literal and figurative light after a dark day, their solidarity providing support just hours after an unspeakable tragedy enveloped this place and ended with three football players dead and two additional students injured from a shooting that unfolded on a bus following a class trip to Washington, D.C.
Gone are receivers Lavel Davis Jr. and Devin Chandler and defensive end D’Sean Perry. Running back Mike Hollins remains in critical condition and on a ventilator after undergoing emergency surgery for a gunshot wound to the back. A second survivor, who has yet to be identified, is reportedly in stable condition.
“We are praying for our teammates and their loved ones,” an unidentified Virginia football player—one of at least 50 members of the team who attended Monday’s vigil—told the crowd in a 60-second prayer. “We are asking God that you will be with them, be with their families, be with Mike as he fights. Put your hands of healing over him, Lord.”
The words broke 45 minutes of silent reflection and led to a line of mourning students leaving candles, flowers and notes before the group of football players seated on the steps of Old Cabell Hall.
“He’s gone! He’s gone! He’s gone!” screamed one player, his head buried in his hands.
While authorities arrested the suspect—former UVA walk-on running back Christopher Darnell Jones Jr.—a city stood mostly in silence. They prayed, they wept and they wondered: Why?
“We don’t know,” says Declan Long, a second-year student from Connecticut who, like so many here, was in shock. “It’s a sad day.”
On Sunday, starting at 10:39 p.m., students received university text alerts with news of a shooting on campus. The first few texts described the shooter as an “ACTIVE ATTACKER” and encouraged students to “RUN HIDE FIGHT,” says Charlie Olsen, a sophomore from Bethesda, Maryland, who provided the text alerts to SI.
Olsen’s fraternity brothers locked themselves upstairs at the Phi Kappa Psi house, which sits about 300 yards from the Culbreth Parking Garage, the location of the shooting. Some of Long’s friends heard the gunshots ring out Sunday night while at the Beta Theta Pi house, one of the closer fraternities to the shooting site.
After the suspect was apprehended around noon Monday, many students spent the day creating massive banners that hung from fraternity and sorority homes, most of them emblazoned with the jersey numbers and names of the victims: No. 1 (Davis), No. 15 (Chandler) and No. 41 (Perry).
“Virginia Strong,” one read.
“Rest In Power,” read another.
Just down the street, bouquets of flowers were left at the Culbreth garage entrance, which sits across from the UVA’s drama building. Less than one mile south of there, dozens of notes, flowers and candles lined the student entrance to Scott Stadium. More than a dozen television news crews blocked sidewalks, TV vans lined streets and waves of students marched toward the center of campus.
At a prayer service preceding the vigil, more than 250 people gathered at St. Paul’s Memorial Church to mourn those lost. “It’s awful,” says pastor Will Peyton. One man exiting the church reminded friends of a grim reality in light of the deaths. “We’ll all be gone some day,” he said.
One woman sent attendees out with a plea: “Let us go into the world to shine as light in the darkness and be the instruments of God’s peace,” she said.
An hour later, at the steps of Old Cabell Hall, football players were despondent, staring into the lit mass of mourners before them. The Lawn shimmered in the dark night as students left their candles, one by one in a receiving line.
As the students and players began to leave, one football player trudged along the concrete sidewalk, a hood pulled over his head, his back hunched and eyes bloodshot.
“I have to go,” he politely says, waving off an inquiring reporter. “I gotta catch up to my buddy. He’s crying in the car.”