Oregon town residents seek solace in church after college massacre

Pastor Randy Scroggins delivers his sermon during Sunday service at New Beginnings Church of God on Oct 4, 2015, in Roseburg, Oregon.
Pastor Randy Scroggins delivers his sermon during Sunday service at New Beginnings Church of God on Oct 4, 2015, in Roseburg, Oregon. PHOTO: AFP

ROSEBURG, Oregon (REUTERS) - Grieving residents of an Oregon town reeling from a burst of gun violence that left 10 people dead on a college campus sought solace in church services on Sunday (Oct 4), still bewildered by the massacre and disturbing details coming to light.

About 250 congregants at Garden Valley Church stood at their seats as vocalists sang the Christian ballad "We Shall Not Be Shaken," then watched a slide presentation about the shooting victims after the minister had asked children in the sanctuary to be excused.

"For Roseburg, this was 9/11," Pastor Craig Schlesinger said from the pulpit, referring to the Sept 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

Worshipers stood with hands raised, some wiping tears from their faces and embracing each other.

Across town at the tiny Umpqua Unitarian Universalist Church, congregants cried openly, hugged and held hands as they sang the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome."

"Who are you now that this has happened?" the Rev Annie Holmes asked the 60 congregants. "Of course there's anger and fear and sadness and grief beyond description."

The outpouring of emotion followed a day of new disclosures about Thursday's outbreak of gun violence at Umpqua Community College, the deadliest US mass shooting in two years and the bloodiest in Oregon's modern history.

Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin said on Saturday that medical examiners had determined that the gunman had taken his own life after opening fire on fellow students in his writing class and exchanging shots with police. Authorities originally had suggested he had been shot dead by two officers who first confronted him.

According to survivors' accounts, the gunman, who has been identified as Christopher Harper-Mercer, stormed into the classroom, shot his professor at point-blank range, then began picking off cowering classmates one at a time as he questioned each about their religion and whether they were Christians.

- SPARED TO BE 'TELLING THE STORY' -

On Saturday came an additional disclosure, from the mother of a teenage girl left badly wounded. The gunman had handed an envelope - presumably containing a message of some kind - to one of the male students in class whose life was spared.

"He (Harper-Mercer) told everybody else to go to the middle of the room and lay down," Bonnie Schaan told reporters outside a local hospital. "He called the one guy, gave him the envelope and told him to go to the corner of the classroom because obviously he was going to be the one that was going to be telling the story."

Schaan's 16-year-old daughter, Cheyeanne Fitzgerald, survived the ordeal with a gunshot to her back, one of nine people wounded in the attack and one of three listed in critical condition.

Fitzgerald was struck just below her shoulder blade by a bullet that clipped her lung and lodged in her kidney, which had to be removed in surgery, her family said.

"She's starting to really remember the events of what happened," the teenager's aunt, Colleen Fitzgerald, told a news conference on Saturday. "She was asked what her religion was and didn't say anything."

Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin also revealed on Saturday that an eighth gun had been recovered from the apartment Harper-Mercer shared with his mother a short distance from Roseburg, a former timber town about 290km south of Portland.

The gunman was previously known to have carried six firearms, ammunition and body armor with him to campus the day of the killings.

Authorities have revealed little of what they may know about his motives. Asked about media reports that he left behind racist writings, a Federal Bureau of Investigation spokeswoman declined to comment on the investigation.

A day after the massacre, the 16 students who comprise the 8th grade at Umpqua Valley Christian School in Roseburg decided to donate to survivors and victims' families the proceeds of a fundraiser on Saturday evening originally planned to pay for a class trip to Hawaii.

Isaac Guastaferro, 14, took a microphone from a classmate and led the school assembly in a prayer.

"Heavenly Father," he said, "I pray for the families of the victims, that they will not grieve too much and that they will come to know you. I pray that out of this you will be glorified - somehow."