Feb. 14 is usually a day marked with chocolates and flowers. But for the roughly 100 attendees at the vigil organized by March For Our Lives Gainesville, it was a day of remembrance.
Sunday marks three years since the tragic mass shooting that claimed 17 lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Somber students at the University of Florida gathered at Plaza of the Americas on Sunday night to honor the 17 victims. The standing attendees held lit candles as former Marjory Stoneman Douglas students spoke.
“It’s important to remember that strength comes from overcoming hardships and tragedy,” Julia Cordover, 2018 senior class president of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, said. “Our experience is part of our story. Do not let it define us.”
Samantha Diaz, a freshman studying neuroscience at the University of Florida, was in her sophomore year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas on Feb. 14, 2018. She said it’s a day that will stay with her forever.
“My memory of that day is perfectly clear,” Diaz, 18, said. “I was 15 at the time, and I just remember feeling really confused as to what was going on.”
Diaz was in her finance class, finishing an assignment, when she heard a loud blaring from the fire alarm. She said there was just 10 minutes left of the school day, so she and her classmates brushed the alarm off as a routine drill.
“We were slow to leave the room,” Diaz said. “And when I walked out, it smelled like a fire.”
Diaz’s softball coach, who also worked as one of the school’s security guards, was outside of her classroom. “He saw me and he screamed, ‘Why are you walking? You need to run!’,” Diaz said.
Diaz remembers hearing two loud pops.
“I was so young and I didn’t know anything,” she said. “I literally just thought it was the heavy door closing behind me.”
She would later find out that she had just heard two rounds fired by an active school shooter with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle in the building next to her.
She and her 30 classmates ran across the school’s campus where a teacher spotted the students. The teacher urgently told the students to come inside her classroom. Ironically, it was the peer counseling room. Diaz and her peers hid in the closet.
In the cramped closet, Diaz received an outpouring of text messages from concerned friends.
“They were asking if I was OK,” she said. “And I was so confused, like ‘what do you mean?’ And then they sent me a picture of the news.”
It was then when she realized the gravity of what was happening at her school. After almost three hours of hiding in the closet, Diaz and her classmates were let out to safety at 5:30 p.m. She describes that time as “pure fear.”
For the months following the tragedy, she felt numb.
“It was a really weird feeling,” Diaz said. “You don’t know how to process it.”
Now, three years after the tragic mass shooting, Diaz struggles with guilt every day. “I deal with thoughts of ‘Why not me, and why them?’’”
Diaz is still learning how to come to terms with the trauma she and so many other students endured on that terrible day. “It’s kind of bad to say, but for me it’s just a thing that you have learn how to deal with,” she said. “It won’t really go away.”
Brandon Abzug, who spoke at Sunday’s vigil, was a 17-year-old senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas the day of the shooting. Since surviving that tragic day, Abzug, 20, has immersed himself into advocacy work.
“I deal with healing by taking this bad situation and changing it for the better so it doesn’t happen again,” Abzug said. He’s a junior at UF studying political science and criminology.
In 2018, Abzug met with Republican and Democratic lawmakers to lobby for stricter gun laws. He wrote and published two articles, one in 2019 and one in 2020, detailing his passion for prevention.
“I learned this in criminology,” Abzug said. “It’s much easier to prevent rather than trying to intervene and rehabilitate.”
Abzug believes gun control and implementing mental health programs in schools are key to preventing a tragedy like this one.
In 2018, former Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act. The bill is aimed to tighten gun control, school security and school safety. Abzug said passing the bill is a baby-step in the right direction.
“The main thing I want done is banning the sale of assault weapons with high-capacity magazines,” Abzug said. “There’s no place for them on the streets in 21st-century America. They’re too dangerous.”
The K-12 School Shooting Database, a Center for Homeland Defense and Security research project that documents every instance a gun is brandished, fired, or a bullet hits school property in the U.S. for any reason, shows 262 such incidents since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
Editor’s correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Brandon Abzug was a junior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas when the shooting occurred. It has been corrected to state that Abzug was a senior at the time.