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PARKLAND, Fla. - The worst of it, for the kids, might have been seeing their backpacks, in boxes lining the hallways, for them to claim.
Each bore a police tag marked “evidence.”
On Sunday, a day of the week when children normally aren’t at school, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida, were allowed to come back onto the campus for the first time since that terrible day.
It had been just 11 days. It seemed like yesterday. Or forever.
They came, quietly, somberly, some stopping to hug a friend they hadn’t seen since that afternoon when they all were moving much faster. When they left their backpacks in their classrooms or dropped them as they ran through the screams and the shouts and the shattering glass and the bullets and the blood. And the bodies of 14 classmates and three adults.
Sunday’s event, closed to the press, was a “campus reunification,” the school’s message board said. A day of sanity before the kids took on the difficult task of going back to school this week. A desperate attempt to at least approach normality.
Outside the school, some places still bore yellow crime scene tape. But more predominant were blue and red and green balloons and flowers, many piled up in front of 17 memorials.
The chain-link fence was lined with the ads that had been up from long before — from local doctors, lawyers, pizza joints. But now they also bore banners bearing words of support. Boca Christian and St. Andrews School in Boca Raton were there. “Stand strong,” one sign read.
Many banners were from nearby Broward County high schools, some of them hoping for the day when they can innocently be bitter sports rivals again instead of brothers and sisters in sorrow.
Many of the children and parents filing in Sunday to the impromptu open house, and filing out later, did not want to talk to reporters. Because it wasn’t the time. Or because this was just too private. Or maybe because they were afraid of their emotions.
Michael Dittmeier had brought his daughter, Michelle.
“She’s doing good. Strong,” Michael said. “Better than me.”
His throat closed and he had to stop.
“It’s basically to let these kids get reoriented,” he finally said. “We are a family.”
For senior Gloria Jimenez, 17, seeing her backpack in a row of boxes was “weird.”
“Those eight minutes were like 80 years. Her life passed through my brain,” dad Edward Jimenez said.
“I think I’m doing OK,” Gloria said. “Less crying.”
Chris and Laura King said their 14-year-old son, Connor, still was inside collecting his pack. They said the teen heard shots, saw glass shatter and saw his friend’s body. They said he has had to get medical help for panic attacks that cause him to wake screaming in the night.
The kids kept filing in. And filing out.
“For an hour, I didn’t know if she was alive,” Sham Tilak said, standing with daughter, Karishma Tilak, 14.
Tilak, who moved his family from Boynton Beach in 1997, said that as children raced out from the gunfire, his father, Karishma’s grandfather, waited with other frantic loved ones as Karishma texted from inside for him to stay away so he wouldn’t be shot.
“I’m OK,” Karishma said, but her demeanor suggested otherwise.
Sham was asked when things might return to some semblance of pre-Feb. 14. He shook his head. “I don’t know.”
Student Megan Martin, 16, had come with her mother Heidi, a teacher at nearby Heron Heights Elementary. She said she was “just really excited” to see her friends again. She said she was proud that her schoolmates have turned their grief into action, mounting a vocal campaign to talk about guns.
“We’ve always been a tough school,” she said.
One parent, who didn’t give her name, had a different perspective. Her family had moved in October from a small town north of Toronto. Her young daughter had gone from a class of 800 to one of about 3,300.
“My mother was not thrilled we were moving to Florida,” the woman said. The reason: guns.
“Most Canadians don’t get it,” she said. “You don’t see what’s so obvious to the rest of the world.”
Giovanni Zamudio and his wife, Mary, came with their sons, ages 13 and 8. They live in Weston, but they felt compelled to come and hand out yellow roses.
The Zamudios had seen the drug cartel-fueled carnage of past years in their native Colombia, and “that’s why we were looking for a safe place in Florida,” Giovanni said. “We love this country. But there has to be a lot of changes. Mostly for the kids.”
Antonio Vargas and his wife, Gloria Lewis, their shirts emblazoned with “Jesus is Lord,” lined the entrance gate, greeting kids and parents. The two work with the homeless in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Gloria said the couple had had “a calling” to come to the school and found out about the open house only when they arrived.
“This problem is bigger than a gun,” Gloria said. “It’s a heart problem.”
Sister Immaculata, a young visiting nun from Madrid, had come down with Lisa Addeo from St. Andrew Catholic Church in Stuart.
Addeo propped up a large portrait of Our Lady of Guadeloupe and handed out prayer cards to passers-by.
Sister Immaculata said in Spanish that she’d talked to colleagues back in Spain about the doings in Florida. Then she folded her hands and said in English, “Pray. For Pray.”
Behind the two, Moshe Yemin walked up with an Israeli flag in his shirt pocket. He’s from a synagogue in Sunny Isles, near Miami Beach, and when he heard many of the victims were Jewish, he felt he had to come up.
Yemin, and Vargas and Lewis, and Sister Immaculata and Lisa Addeo, said they were fine with being part of an interdenominational full-court press of love by soldiers of the Lord.
“We have one God,” Yemin said.
At the east entrance, people stood dressed in white angel outfits, complete with wings. There were 17.
The group had driven down early Sunday from Orlando, where they’d formed just after the Pulse nightclub shooting. That time, 49 people had dressed as angels.
“I want to pack these wings away. Never to come out again,” group organizer Terry DeCarlo said. “Unfortunately, they keep coming out.”