LAFAYETTE, Louisiana – About 100 students and members of the community gathered on the campus of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Friday evening to honor the victims of a deadly shooting at a popular movie theater in this city.
Standing near a fountain on the campus quad, the crowd sung the national anthem and later lit candles and observed a moment of silence for the two women who died and the nine other people who were injured after a gunman opened fire Thursday during a screening here of the comedy “Trainwreck.”
The shootings have pierced the mid-summer calm and quiet on campus, bringing students together in collective shock and worry that something so violent could happen so close by.
Students said that going to the movies at Lafayette’s Grand Theater, a large cineplex located only about a mile and a half from campus and tucked near stores and restaurants, is a familiar ritual.
“The McDonald’s is right there. We all go to that McDonald’s after class and we would all catch a movie. It’s such a normal thing,” said Claire McVey, a student from Houston.
McVey said she was home for summer break when she heard word of the theater attack, and that she made the three-and-a-half hour drive to campus early Friday morning.
“As a student here, I felt it was right to come and pay my respects and be there to support everyone,” McVey said.
Other students said they were working their part-time evening jobs in neighborhood restaurants when diners and staff began noticing alarming posts on social media.
“I heard about it from one of my tables,” said Cheyne Galon, 21, who works as a waitress on Thursday nights at a cafe near the theater.
Galon said it would take some time before she felt safe at the movies or elsewhere near campus, and that she and her friends have turned to each other for support.
“We’re all impacted. It’s not something a majority of us thought would happen in Lafayette,” Galon said.
The shootings are a particularly painful episode for the community at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. In a statement released online Friday, the university president said that 33 year-old Jillian Johnson, one of two women killed Thursday, was a 2004 graduate.
Johnson owned a popular clothing and design business. “It’s not a day goes by that you don’t see one of the things that she created – a t-shirt, a hat, a purse, or a booksack,” said Stephen Ortego, 31, a member of Louisiana’s House of Representatives and a local architect.
“It hits close to home,” Ortego said.
Law enforcement and state officials say police were alerted to the scene at about 7:30 p.m. Thursday, when a fire alarm was pulled by a quick-thinking area teacher who was among the wounded in the movie audience.
Police have identified the shooter as 59 year-old John Russell Houser, a “drifter” from Georgia who had also lived in Alabama. Houser, according to law enforcement, opened fire on the audience with a .45 caliber handgun, killing two women, Jillian Johnson and 21 year-old Mayci Breaux, and wounding nine other people. Police say he took his own life after spotting officers.
The organizer of the campus vigil says she was so disturbed by the violence Thursday that she couldn’t sleep.
“I felt in my heart that I needed to do something,” said Mary Miller, 23, a biology major and a sergeant in the Louisiana National Guard. Miller says that after some time on Friday morning it became apparent to her that a campus memorial event had not yet been planned.
“I got the bright idea that maybe I can do something,” Miller said. She announced the event on Facebook, garnering hundreds of “likes” from friends and other students.
Reflecting the deep religious faith here in this city about two hours west of New Orleans, campus religious leaders attended the vigil Friday, making brief remarks and offering prayers.
Father Bryce Sibley, who is chaplain of the area’s Our Lady of Wisdom Church and runs a campus Catholic ministry, said his Mass service was crowded Friday. Sibley said about 120 people were there, more than double the number he usually draws during the summer.
Jonah Slason, 25, a choir director and recent graduate of the university, said he was inside the showing of “Trainwreck” when the shooting occurred.
At the end of the vigil Friday he hugged friends and held on to his small candle, which had burned out.
“All of a sudden, I just hear this loud bang,” Slason recalled during an interview, detailing the moments that the shooting began. Slason said he and a friend ran toward the theater exit as more shots rang out.
Slason said he feels fortunate to have survived and is grateful he could pray for victims alongside other members of the community.
“That’s one of the biggest things I know,” Slason said. “That Lafayette is a city covered with God’s love.”
The university’s vigil Friday is among a handful of relatively small and relatively private memorial events held in the wake of the shootings.
During a press conference Saturday, a Lafayette police spokesperson said the department is asking people to refrain from holding large vigils in public places until authorities are able to make plans to ensure public safety.
“We’re still handling calls within the city,” Corporal Paul Mouton said, adding that carrying on the normal business of policing while aiding the broad investigation here has been “taxing.”
City administrator Dee Stanley said separately during an interview Saturday that a meeting would be held Monday between city officials and community and religious leaders to plan a large public event.