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Grieving Oregon Residents Seek Solace In Church Services First Sunday After Deadly School Massacre

Grieving residents of an Oregon town reeling from a burst of gun violence that left 10 people dead sought solace in church services on Sunday, still bewildered by the massacre and disturbing details coming to light.
Dean Hickok, 56, takes part in a candlelight vigil for victims of the Umpqua Community College shooting, in Winston, Oregon, United States, October 3, 2015. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

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

At Garden Valley Church, about 250 congregants stood at their seats as vocalists sang theChristian ballad "We Shall Not Be Shaken," then watched a slide show about the victims after the minister 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 the World Trade Center 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 came amid new disclosures about Thursday's carnage at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, the deadliest U.S. 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 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.

The gunman, who has been identified as Christopher Harper-Mercer, 26, 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, according to survivors' accounts.

Besides the nine people who died, nine others were wounded, three of them critically.

 

SPARED TO BE 'TELLING THE STORY'

The mother of a teenage girl who was among the wounded revealed that the gunman had handed an envelope to one of the male students in the class, whose life the suspect deliberately 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 where her daughter was being treated. "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."

CNN reported on Sunday that the envelope contained a computer flash drive that the surviving student, identified by the TV network as 18-year-old Matthew Smith, turned over to authorities immediately afterward.

His mother, Summer Smith, told CNN her son was forced to stand by and watch the gunman shoot each of his classmates, afraid that "if he did anything to make the shooter notice him, that he would be shot."

Citing the account of another student who was shot in the hand but survived by playing dead, CNN reported the killer told his victims he would be quick, that he would try to make it painless and that he would be "joining" them in a minute or two.

That student, who declined to give her name, said the gunman shot one woman as she was trying to climb back into her wheelchair from the floor as he demanded.

As for the gunman's questioning of his victims' religious faith, she added: "I honestly don't think he was targeting anybody. He just wanted to do it for fun, because he still shot every single one that he asked."

A pastor who was among a group of local clergy offering counseling to victims and their families related to Reuters the victims' sense that the assailant was deliberate and methodical.

"This gunman had really controlled the environment very well. He had people hit the ground. He was speaking very calmly as he was committing the act," the pastor said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Bonnie Schaan's 16-year-old daughter, Cheyeanne Fitzgerald, was shot in the back but survived. Her condition was upgraded from critical to fair on Sunday, her family said.

Sheriff Hanlin 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 180 miles (290 km) 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.