THE INVITED SPEAKERS had finished with their brief remarks, the drumming and bagpiping had died down, but hundreds of people clutching candles and embracing one another in Roseburg's sprawling Stewart Park remained, waiting.
Over an improvised PA system, a live mic caught snatches of a whispered conversation.
"No one's prayed yet," said one voice.
"Let's get a pastor down here," said another.
"I could do the Lord's Prayer," a third volunteered. Someone went to find a pastor.
It was a fitting testament to just how bewildered Roseburg found itself after the worst mass shooting in Oregon history: No one had thought to arrange for the assurances of faith on the night the little church-filled town needed them most.
- VIGIL: Umpqua Community College's interim president addresses mourners on October 1.
- Amanda Lucier
You know the details by now. On Thursday, October 1, less than 10 hours before that vigil, a 26-year-old student at Umpqua Community College (UCC) walked into his freshman writing class packing an arsenal, then calmly murdered eight fellow classmates and the professor. After being wounded by Roseburg police, gunman Chris Harper-Mercer killed himself. Reports suggest he specifically spared one student, ordering the witness to give a package to authorities.
The tragedy received the response America's gotten used to giving mass shootings—40 similar to the Roseburg massacre in the last 15 years alone, according to Mother Jones. Unmarked trucks carrying federal agents streamed down I-5 to Roseburg, en route to help piece together details that look depressingly familiar.
President Barack Obama got on TV, again, to urge tighter gun controls that will be unpalatable in Washington, DC, though his speech wasn't the somber post-tragedy dirge that he's perfected. The president wasn't just sad; he was furious.
And, of course, media swarmed Roseburg. Portland journalists literally raced each other down the interstate, while national correspondents and makeup-caked television reporters secured the first flight to Eugene, quickly snatching up all the rooms at the Holiday Inn Express.
The circus was so complete that the most notable illumination at the Stewart Park candlelight vigil wasn't the candles; it was the high-powered lighting that news crews were using to make the scene presentable for viewers.
The Mercury was there, too—talking to victims' families, pressing for official details, and exploring Roseburg like everyone else. And while we can't claim to offer a definitive take on an event that still has so many unknowns—and for which Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin has largely refused to give a narrative—this is some of what the Mercury saw.
THE DOUGLAS COUNTY FAIRGROUNDS, like all of Roseburg, sit beneath a procession of high hills that are occasionally topped with crosses. The grounds are about eight miles from the site of Thursday's tragedy, and contain two cavernous halls that can accommodate crowds. It's here authorities chose to bus UCC students trapped on campus after the shooting, so it's here distressed family members rushed, waiting to see who came off of those buses.
By 3 pm, a little more than four hours after the shooting, the family members who remained were in agony. Many of the students had already come and gone, but there were rumors that another bus—this one packing people who were closest to the gunfire—was on its way from the college. The FBI and local police were on scene, but no one was offering details.
Outside the waiting area, a woman named Jessica Chandler spoke to reporters in hopes they could find word of her daughter, 18-year-old Rebecka Carnes. Chandler had been frantically trying to reach the teen, an aspiring dental hygienist on her fourth day of classes at UCC. All of the family had. But the phone—never far from Carnes' reach—rang and rang.
"They're telling us to stay in this room," Chandler said, smoking a cigarette outside one of the event halls. "But I want to know where my kid is." The next day, Carnes would officially be listed among the dead.
At one point, a middle-aged couple emerged from an event hall. The man was on his cell phone, calmly telling someone on the other end, "She's been shot." He'd just found out from his son, who'd apparently found out through social media, that his daughter was a shooting victim—one injured so badly she couldn't be treated in Roseburg. She had to be flown by helicopter to a hospital in Springfield.
The man didn't want to talk, except to vent his frustrations: "Nobody official has told us anything. We've heard everything from social media."
Assuming he was right, and his daughter was one of the three shooting victims flown to the Springfield hospital, she's expected to survive.
In those early hours, nothing was certain, and anything seemed possible. An early report of 13 people slain and 20-plus victims turned out to be inaccurate. Wild guesses at the killer's identity flew around the internet. Still, a fuzzy picture was emerging.
Most persistent were chilling reports that the killer had specifically targeted victims based on their Christianity. An official with the union that represents UCC instructors quietly confirmed he'd heard that from several reliable sources. There were rumors the killer asked class members, one by one, whether they were Christian, and shot them in the head or leg based on the answer. More than five days later, it was still unclear how true that is, but we know several survivors have told family that Harper-Mercer asked about religion, and we know that some victims were shot in the head, while others escaped with less severe wounds.
"It's tough," said the UCC union official. "As bad as it gets."
There were witnesses at the fairgrounds, too. Wrapped in an American Red Cross blanket, tired of talking to reporters, and still thoroughly shaken, 19-year-old Hannah Miles explained how she'd been in a Writing 121 class at Snyder Hall when a sharp pop erupted from the classroom next door, "like a ruler smacking a chalkboard." Seconds passed, then another ruler smack.
Miles' classroom adjoined the one next door by a common door, and when someone suggested checking on the other class, her instructor balked, saying, "I'm not gonna open the door." Instead, the teacher knocked. "Then rapid fire," Miles said. "Three or four more shots."
- OFF CAMPUS: Umpqua Community College students are escorted off campus on October 1.
- Michael Sullivan / The News-Review
The teen fled outdoors with the rest of her class, none of them absolutely sure they were even in danger. As she waited in the campus bookstore, though, alarmed reports began to pop up on social media apps, and the horror of what she'd escaped began to seize Miles. At some point, there were three more shots.
Details began to come rapidly into focus. Up I-5 from the fairgrounds, past the closed-off UCC campus, reporters collected outside of the apartment complex where Harper-Mercer—by then pretty clearly the killer—had lived with his mother.
It's a dun-colored, multi-building complex shaded by evergreens. At 6 pm, the building where Harper-Mercer had lived was protected by police tape, and watched over by two deputies munching pizza. Then, suddenly, it was swarming with agents from the US Department of Homeland Security, some with police dogs.
Neighbors had gathered in small pockets, as curious as the assembled media, but no one on-site seemed to know anything about the killer or his family except for a 21-year-old woman, Bronte Hart. She explained how Harper-Mercer would yell at her for smoking cigarettes on the balcony below his unit.
"He was not a friendly type of guy," Hart said. "He didn't want anything to do with anyone."
IN HIS ANGRY REMARKS on the day of the shootings, President Obama spoke of "a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America." Douglas County's sheriff is as fitting a mascot for that choice as you might find.
In 2013, right after the horrific attacks in Newtown, Connecticut, and at Clackamas Town Center, the crew-cut-sporting Hanlin railed against new gun controls he feared were on the way. In a letter to Vice President Joe Biden, the sheriff vowed not to enforce any regulations he thought violated the Second Amendment.
If you're curious how Hanlin feels now that this horror's paid his community a visit, so is everybody else. But the sheriff has largely refused to say anything about his past remarks.
Other things he won't yet talk about, despite persistent questioning: a possible motive, what authorities believe happened inside Snyder Hall on October 1, where police officers confronted Harper-Mercer, and what materials the killer left behind (he apparently gave one student a typed "manifesto" to forward to authorities). In a more pointed gesture, Hanlin has also declined to even utter Harper-Mercer's name, admonishing media outlets that do so for "glorifying" the killer and his act.
All this has made it hard to develop a solid narrative for a tragedy of such historic magnitude. Family members and sources on the periphery are starting to fill in pictures of the people involved, but what official accounts we have were largely delivered in drips and drabs the day after the killings.
At 6 am on October 2, officials at Mercy Medical Center in Roseburg revealed they'd treated 10 victims, all shot in the head, chest, abdomen, or "extremity." One of them died on the operating table. Eight of the nine people who died in the shooting never made it to a hospital.
At 10 am, an agent with the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives revealed Harper-Mercer possessed 13 guns—all of them purchased legally, some of them by an unnamed family member (it's since become clear Harper-Mercer's mother, a nurse named Laurel Harper, shared an affinity for guns with her son). The killer had six of them—five handguns and an AR-15 rifle—during the attack at UCC, along with five clips of ammo and a flak jacket.
Hanlin was asked if it was odd for one person to have 13 guns. This was the sheriff's straight-faced response: "In Oregon? This is a hunting state. Firearms are popular in most households."
Finally, just after 2 pm in the afternoon, Douglas County learned the names of its dead:
Lucero Alcaraz of Roseburg, 19
Treven Taylor Anspach of Sutherlin, 20
Rebecka Ann Carnes of Myrtle Creek, 18
Quinn Glen Cooper of Roseburg, 18
Kim Saltmarsh Dietz of Roseburg, 59
Lucas Eibel of Roseburg, 18
Jason Dale Johnson of Winston, 33
Lawrence Levine of Glide, 67 (instructor of the class)
Sarena Dawn Moore of Myrtle Creek, 44
An easy cliché that emerged in the hours after the shooting quickly proved true: In small-town Roseburg, the tragedy had reached all corners.
Two of the victims had relatives employed by Douglas County Fire District No. 2, which responded to the scene. People on the street or in coffee shops spoke of loved ones who were in adjacent buildings when the murders occurred, or who were due for class at Snyder later that day, or who mercifully skipped school for whatever reason.
Even US Senator Jeff Merkley, who was born in Douglas County and still has family in the area, had a relative among the dead: Carnes was his cousin's great granddaughter. Merkley flew into town from Washington, DC, and said in a speech Friday he "never thought it could possibly be" that his family would be affected.
The deeply personal aspect of the killings took on a variety of faces. Many citizens would do little more than shake their heads when asked about victims they knew, recognizing that another family's grief wasn't theirs to puncture by answering an outsider's questions. The families of the dead—immediately set upon by every major news outlet in the country—formed walls of aggression or silence, violated by the insistence they speak about something they'd barely begun to process.
Some seemed to resort to subterfuge. At the listed address of one of the victims, a young man smelling of pot came to the door and insisted the Mercury had the wrong house.
"This is the, uh, Shakespeare residence," he said.
This coolness was reserved for media alone. For its own, Roseburg unleashed an outpouring of support in the form of cash, donations of food, and the many, many "We stand with UCC" signs that had popped up around town. By Friday evening, the chipper cashier at a Roseburg deli was pushing commemorative window decals on customers. They were cut in the shape of Oregon, with a heart marking the city. The proceeds were going to victims and their families.
This type of support, of course, comes easy in the wake of something as horrific as the UCC killings. What's still uncertain is whether any change will come as a result of Oregon's pain, as the shock fades and the shooting becomes just another name on an ever-expanding ledger: Roseburg, 2015, nine dead.
Right now, Oregon's politicians are stepping lightly.
"It is going to keep happening until we decide we want them to stop," Governor Kate Brown said at an October 2 news conference. And then she herself stopped, recognizing that a call to restrain gun access was not what the citizens of Roseburg wanted to hear from their state's executive.
"This is a conversation that we will have," Brown said, "but today is not the day."
AT THE CANDLELIGHT VIGIL on the night of the shooting, someone finally found a pastor.
A full 10 hours after Harper-Mercer had forever altered Roseburg's perception of itself, the clergyman asked his god to "please, please touch us," speaking of "a whole park full of us that have our hearts crushed." He prayed, and then the hundreds of people at Stewart Park began to sing "Amazing Grace."
It was hardly a full-throated rendition, but you also couldn't find anyone who wasn't pitching in. Even many rows back from the candles and flowers arranged on the makeshift stage, up a hill to where the TV news lights blinded, everyone was at least humming.
A few minutes after the song died down, John Blackwood, a computer science professor at UCC grabbed the mic.
"We know this is not going to be a defining moment," he said. "We will not be terrorized and we will not be intimidated."