Those who loved Paige Ann Herring and those who knew her only in death gathered Friday to mourn and to remember. A minister told them they must be a "beacon of hope" to the world.
About 500 people packed the chapel at the Farmers Union Funeral Home for the first of five funerals from the Westside Middle School shootings. Four paramedics came in their uniforms, and many children were wearing the school's red and white jackets.Paige Ann was less than two weeks past her 12th birthday when she, three schoolmates and a teacher were shot to death in Tuesday's ambush.
"God did not leave Jonesboro on Tuesday," the Rev. Gary Cremeens told mourners. "God wants us to be beacon of hope, light and love to a world that needs it so badly. The healing cannot begin until we forgive," he said.
One girl in the second row clutched a brown teddy bear and sobbed as the theme from "Titanic," Celine Dion's hit "My Heart Will Go On," was played.
A pink and white bouquet stood on Paige's casket, and nearby was a photo of the dark-haired youngster in a red basketball uniform, holding a ball and sitting next to some trophies.
On Thursday night, friends and classmates hugged one another and cried as they waited to walk by Paige's open casket during her viewing.
Photos of Natalie Brooks at different ages were to the right of her closed casket at a separate visitation. One showed a toddler dressed in a white bunny costume, while she wore a pink formal dress in a recent photograph. She was 11. Her funeral was set for later Friday.
Services are scheduled Saturday for the three other victims, teacher Shannon Wright and students Stephanie Johnson and Brittany Varner.
Classes were canceled Wednesday, and the first thing school officials did Thursday was to disconnect the fire alarm. Students were worried about what to do if it sounded, so Principal Karen Curtner ordered it shut off "so we wouldn't have any of those problems today."
No lessons were taught Thursday, and all outdoor activities were canceled, including recess. Students wrote graffiti on the walls and made cards for the 11 people who were wounded, including the five who remained hospitalized.
Still, 21 percent of the school's 250 students stayed home. Erica Swindle, 12, who watched a friend die, said she wasn't ready to face her demons just yet.
"It scares you real bad," she said. "I could have been shot in the back."
Tristian McGowan, 13, one of the wounded and a cousin of one of the boys arrested, returned with his arm in a sling.
Twelve-year-old Colby Brooks said he didn't see the point in putting off the return.
"It's just going to be as bad Monday as it is today," he said.