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'Never could've imagined this hug would be my last': Vigil honors Santa Clarita shooting victims

November 18, 2019 - 9:51 am
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(SANTA CLARITA, Calif.) -- Friends and family of the two teenagers gunned down at their Santa Clarita, California, high school were joined by local officials, administrators, faith leaders and first responders at an emotional vigil to remember their too-short lives.

"Well over 10,000 glow sticks" were lit up by those who came to Santa Clarita's Central Park Sunday night, said Cameron Smyth, Santa Clarita's mayor pro tem.

The Thursday morning attack in the Saugus High School quad killed 15-year-old Gracie Anne Muehlberger and 14-year-old Dominic Blackwell, wounded three other victims and "shattered our sense of safety," Santa Clarita Mayor Marsha McLean said at the vigil.

One of Muehlberger's two older brothers, Riley Muehlberger, recounted at the vigil the last time he saw her, when he surprised her at her 15th birthday dinner last month after texting her that her present was coming in the mail.

"I only had four days back home and I'm so happy my last memory with you was giving you a big hug," he said, overcome with emotion.

"I woke you up and hugged you and you hugged me back even though you were half asleep. I never could've imaged this hug would be my last," he said.

On the last morning of her life, Muehlberger was seen on her home's door camera leaving for school.

"She left with a pep in her stride like she knew where she wanted to go," her father said in a letter read on his behalf. "Nobody could've imagined what would unfold."

Addison Koegle, a best friend of Muehlberger, was shot and survived. In an audio message played at the vigil, the recovering teen said, "I am doing well and I am at home with my family."

Koegle said her friend of six years "changed my life for the better."

"All of the dances we made up, the performances we did, the lemonade stands we did to try and make money. Gracie was my childhood. She taught me what real love was and if I wanted something so badly I could do anything and everything to achieve it," Koegle said. "I wish I could be around her just one last time."

"I've only known Dom since about September but it's felt like a lifetime because we became such fast friends," Koegle added about the boy killed in the attack. "We grew very close very fast. Dom had a great soul, a kind heart, a loving spirit and so much more. ... I will miss him every single day."

As Koegle heals, she vowed to "make something amazing out of this horrible situation. Gracie would have wanted me to."

The suspected gunman, a 16-year-old boy, shot himself and has since died, authorities said. A motive is not clear.

Saugus High School Principal Vince Ferry, getting choked up, told those gathered Sunday night, "This vigil is the first time I've spoken publicly, and want my first words to be focused on Gracie and Dominic and their families."

"This will be beyond hard," Ferry said. "Through our tears, our hugs, our words of kindness, our remembrances of Gracie and Dominic, we will become stronger. Strength is not the withholding of tears or the waving off of pain. Strength is the ability to welcome our tears in the midst of pain."

"In time, not tonight, we will be able to discuss and look back on the acts of heroism demonstrated by many students, staff, first responders and neighbors. But for tonight, we are here to grieve the loss of two teenagers, two friends," Ferry said before pausing with emotion.

"Two students, two siblings and two children," Ferry continued. "Tonight, we grieve for Gracie and Dominic and have hope for the healing of our community."

 Blackwell, the oldest of four brothers, "brought love and joy to everyone he's encountered," his uncle said.

Emma Bartels described Blackwell as her "happy and goofy" friend who walked her to class.

"I'm going to miss his infectious smile, his sense of humor. It will be a long, painful walk to class without him," Bartels said. "We can honor him by remembering him."

In the wake of the "senseless violence," Superintendent Vicki Engbrecht told the crowd, "we have united to care for each other and begin the slow process of healing, knowing that none of us will really ever be the same again."

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