Grieving students linked arms and a teacher wounded by gunfire listened from her wheelchair as they remembered friends gunned down in a school-yard ambush.
"During the quiet moments when physical exhaustion has made my body try to rest, I hear the blood from my heart rush through my ears when my mind once again flashes horrible pictures of terrorized students," Westside Middle School Principal Karen Curtner said Tuesday at the community service.Students sat with their arms intertwined, resting their heads on one another's shoulders and teacher Sara Lynette Thetford, just out of the hospital, sat in the front row amid 7,500 who turned out for the "Service of Hope and Healing."
Her colleague, Shannon Wright, and four students were killed March 24 as they stood outside the school. Police said two other students pulled a fire alarm, then ambushed classmates and teachers as they filed out. Ten people were wounded; two students are still hospitalized.
Two boys, Mitchell Johnson, 13, and Drew Golden, 11, are being held on five counts of murder.
Mitchell's lawyer said said that the boy isn't the monster many believe him to be, but "a very, very scared and frightened little boy."
"Everybody is looking for an explanation and the easiest explanation is to label him an evil child . . . or the reincarnation of the devil," lawyer Tom Furth said after visiting Mitchell in jail. "That's just not true."
On CNN's "Larry King Live" Tuesday night, Mitchell's father said it was painful to watch the service.
"Not only are we grieving for our son but for all the families," said Scott Johnson, who added that his son, too, was remorseful.
The shootings left most people baffled as well as grief-stricken.
"Like all of you, I do not understand what dark force could have driven young people to do this terrible thing," President Clinton said in a videotaped message played at the service. "As president, I have seen many children killed by political fanatics, but in some ways, this is even harder to grasp."
Clinton sent Attorney General Janet Reno to speak at the memorial in his home state. She said the service was also a celebration of the slain - Natalie Brooks, 11; Paige Ann Herring, 12; Stephanie Johnson, 12; Britthney Varner, 11; and Wright, 32 - "four dear innocent children of God and a wonderful and heroic teacher."
"They have touched our lives and they have touched the spirit of this nation and lifted us up even as we grieve them," Reno said. "We cannot lose faith in human good, even in the face of evil and injustice."
At one end of the arena stage stood five white wreaths arranged like the Olympic rings. At the other end were five small tulip trees to be planted at the school as a memorial.
Westside student Jenny Graham, 13, said a friend who died in the gunfire would have appreciated the remembrances.
"Natalie would have thought it was nice that so many people cared," she said.