Three years after arguably the worst tragedy in the history of South Florida, the lives of 17 people killed during a shooting inside a Broward County school were honored Sunday.
Events were held across the county to pay tribute to the lives taken – 14 students and three staff members – during the Feb. 14th, 2018, mass shooting inside Parkland's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
The city of Parkland held an evening commemoration at Pines Trail Park, featuring therapy dogs, community message boards and a brief ceremony that was livestreamed on the city's social media pages.
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Other cities, including Pembroke Pines and Margate, also held vigils Sunday to remember the moment that shook the area to its core.
An event Sunday morning in Coral Springs paid tribute to the lives lost, with family and friends lighting 17 candles for those killed in the shooting.
In Fort Lauderdale, a separate event remembered the lives lost with the emotion still the same three years later.
"Today for our family is not much different than any other day," said Tony Montalto, whose daughter Gina was one of the 17 victims. “Every day we’re faced with the loss of our bright and bubbly daughter.”
Montalto thanked those who attended and reminded them not to let that remembrance end the next day.
“From the very beginning, we’ve been blessed by amazing support from throughout Broward County, in the country and even the world," he said. “After today, after you spend time remembering the victims, tomorrow wake up and let your elected leaders know that we need to make our schools safer.”
Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony was among several representatives from the BSO to take part in a wreath laying event at the school Sunday.
The moment sticks in the minds of those who were inside the school that day – when a former student returned to campus armed with several weapons and began opening fire soon after pulling the fire alarm.
Within minutes, 17 members of the MSD community lost their lives: Alyssa Alhadeff, Martin Duque, Nicholas Dworet, Jaime Guttenberg, Luke Hoyer, Cara Loughran, Gina Montalto, Joaquin Oliver, Alaina Petty, Meadow Pollack, Helena Ramsay, Alex Schachter, Carmen Schentrup, Peter Wang and staff members Scott Beigel, Aaron Feis and Chris Hixon.
While the suspected shooter remains in a Broward County jail awaiting trial, the people who were reshaped by his actions have became active members of the community for a variety of reasons.
Hixon's widow, Debra, joined Alhadeff's mother, Lori, as elected members of the Broward County School Board and have continued a push for safety measures they felt weren't in place the day of the shooting.
Gutternberg's father, Fred, has become an outspoken supporter of gun control legislation at the state and national level. Pollack's father, Andrew, became a critic of Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie while pushing for measures to increase school safety.
The grief for parents never seems to dissipate.
Max Schachter created SafeSchoolsForAlex.org. The organization provides free online music lessons for kids who can’t afford them, among other services, because his son Alex played trombone in the marching band.
Montalto co-founded StandWithParkland.org. Its mission is to promote school safety, mental health support and responsible gun ownership. Right now, the group is advocating a state bill that would make schools notify parents within 24 hours of any credible threat.
“Had all of our parents known that there was a threat for somebody to shoot up Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, we would’ve made different choices,” Montalto told NBC 6 last week.
The aerial video from that day showed students leaving in organized, single-file lines, hands up on the shoulders of the classmate in front of them. It’s an image many of us will never forget.
Those who were inside the 1200 building have much darker pictures ingrained in their memories.
“There was a lot of screaming in my classroom, of course the bullets were tremendously loud, I don’t know how many bullets came into my room but it just felt like it never stopped, you know?” said Daniela Menescal, who was a junior at the time.
“Ever since the shooting, I’ve had horrible PTSD, I’ve had to deal with a lot of stuff, the trauma has been horrible,” said Haley Betancourt, who is a senior now, a freshman when the rampage occurred.
The survivors of the war zone have stories which, even three years later, are hard to fully comprehend.
Daniela is in college now, but she literally carries a piece of that day with her. She has bullet fragments embedded in her body. Daniela says she assumed it was a drill, how could someone actually be firing a real assault rifle at her and her classmates?
“But that’s when I, like, saw blood in the floor and my pants were filled with blood and I was like, oh, maybe this is for real,” Daniela said.
Marcy Cunningham was teaching English at the school on that fateful day. She heard the shots and screams, but still thought, maybe the drama department was staging a realistic drill.
Just in case it wasn’t a drill, she stepped into the hallway to lock her door. They locked from the outside. The shooter was 30 feet away, with his assault rifle, firing rounds indiscriminately.
“I didn’t even realize I had stepped on somebody on the way back in,” Cunningham said.
The waves of emotional trauma eventually drove some teachers away from MSD, away from the building, which still sits like a scar on the campus.
On Friday, every public school in Broward County observed community service projects to commemorate the three-year anniversary. Runcie read the names of the Parkland victims at a news conference, and at 10:17 a.m., every school held a moment of silence and reflection.
“It is through love, tolerance, forgiveness, and service to others that we will combat the destructive forces of hate, anger and evil,” said Runcie.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered all flags flown at half-mast Sunday to remember the victims.