Grief and anger as Florida town mourns young victims of deadly school shooting

Remote video URL
Mourners hug during a prayer vigil for the victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting at Parkridge Church in Coral Springs, Florida on Feb 15, 2018. PHOTO: AFP
Remote video URL

PARKLAND (REUTERS) - The families of a 14-year-old athlete and a college-bound 18-year-old on Friday (Feb 16) held the first of 17 expected funerals for the victims of this week's rampage at a Florida high school, the latest in a series of deadly shootings at US schools.

The family of Alyssa Alhadeff, 14, whose mother in an angry television appearance called on US President Donald Trump to address the epidemic of school violence, held a private funeral outside Parkland.

The normal calm of the Miami suburb was shattered when suspected 19-year-old gunman Nikolas Cruz opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The funeral of Meadow Pollack, an 18-year-old senior who had been headed to Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, was up next with more ceremonies to follow in the wake of the second-deadliest shooting at a public school in US history.

Brian Gately, a friend of the Alhadeff family, said he attended Alyssa's funeral and that the synagogue was so packed he had to stand in the rear.

"There was just really a lot of sadness in there," Gately, a 51-year-old financial adviser who lives in Parkland said.

The burial became more emotional, he added, saying, "People were yelling, 'No, no.' Kids were yelling, 'No, no.'"

Remote video URL

Wednesday's massacre raised concerns about potential failures in school security and by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which had received a tip about Cruz five months earlier. It also stirred the ongoing US debate about gun rights, which are protected by the Second Amendment of the US Constitution.

President Donald Trump, who addressed the shooting in a White House speech on Thursday that focused on mental health and school safety but steered clear of gun policy, said he would continue with a planned trip to the state on Friday.

"I will be leaving for Florida today to meet with some of the bravest people on earth - but people whose lives have been totally shattered," Trump said on Twitter. "Am also working with Congress on many fronts."

Trump did not say if he was meeting with people involved in the Parkland incident and White House officials could not immediately provide further details on his schedule. Trump had previously planned to spend the weekend at a resort he owns in Palm Beach, about 64km north of Parkland.

Families of victims and local officials lashed out at Washington after the shooting for long inaction on gun policy.

"President Trump, you say what can you do? You can stop the guns from getting into these children's hands. Put metal detectors at every entrance to the schools," Lori Alhadeff, Alyssa's mother, told CNN on Thursday. "President Trump, please do something."

Wednesday's shooting was the 18th in a US school this year, according to gun control advocates Everytown for Gun Safety. The count includes suicides and instances in which a gun went off but no one was hurt.

US Republicans typically oppose efforts to restrict gun purchases or ownership. White House spokesman Raj Shah on Friday told Fox News weapons bans were unrealistic: "We as a nation, we have a Second Amendment, and we as a nation have 300 million guns across America."

Democrats in the US House of Representatives criticized the Republican leadership on Thursday for refusing to take up legislation on tightening background checks for prospective gun buyers.

One resident of neighbouring Coral Springs, where Cruz was arrested, said the shooting had profoundly changed the way he thinks about gun control. He said he voted for Trump in 2016 but his future support for the President would hang on how he addresses the problem.

"From now on, it will have an effect on my decisions," said Keith Lares, a 41-year-old data analyst. "It depends on how he handles the gun laws. This is now a firm issue with me."

Cruz, charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder, made a brief court appearance on Thursday and was ordered held without bond.

"He's a broken human being," his lawyer, public defender Melissa McNeill, told reporters. "He's sad, he's mournful, he's remorseful."

Cruz may have foreshadowed the attack in a comment on YouTube. The FBI said it received a tip in September about a message that read: "I'm going to be a professional school shooter," by a user named Nikolas Cruz.

However, FBI agents had no information pointing to the"time, location or true identity" of the person behind the message, Robert Lasky, special agent in charge of the FBI's Jacksonville office, told reporters.

Wednesday's shooting ranks as the greatest loss of life from school gun violence since the 2012 shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that left 20 first-graders and six adult educators dead.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.