Led by the FIU Brass Choir playing Don Gillis's soulful arrangement of "Just a Closer Walk," students walked shoulder-to-shoulder with faculty, staff, alumni and community members in a somber procession that stretched half a mile as more than 1,000 mourners paid their respects to the victims of last week's pedestrian bridge tragedy at a vigil at the Modesto A. Maidique Campus.
"Our shock is deep. Our mourning is intense and our sadness is enduring," said President Mark B. Rosenberg at the vigil in the Graham Center ballrooms. The standing-room-only event preceded the walk to the memorial site at the corner of Southwest 8th Street and 107th Avenue where mourners laid flowers at the foot of a billboard that read "Together the healing begins. Today and always, #FIUstrong."
Alexa Duran, a freshman and Alpha Xi Delta sorority member, was among the victims mourned. Her sorority sisters wore their Greek letters in her honor and carried flowers to lay at the memorial.
Music became a source of comfort throughout the vigil.
The FIU String Quartet performed several selections arranged by the quartet's cellist Santiago Luna. The ensemble included violinist Lianet Bujosa, Duran's friend and Alpha Xi Delta sorority sister, who could be seen struggling to hold back tears as she played.
Fighting to keep their voices from cracking with grief, two of Duran's friends from Archbishop Edward A. McCarthy High School, Michaela Reyes and FIU student Sofia Rincon, performed "Stay" by Rihanna. Duran sang the piece to friends who were going away to college while on a cruise last year.
"I want to sing this song for Alexa, because she is always going to stay in my heart," said vocalist Rincon, who noted that Duran was a gifted singer. "She would sing with us, and it was so humbling to know that she had such a beautiful voice."
Music professor Kathryn Longo directed the FIU Concert Choir in an a cappella rendition of "Amazing Grace," which ended the vigil. Afterward, she spoke of the emotional impact on members as they prepared for the performance. The shock of returning to a changed campus on Monday, immediately after spring break, made it hard on everyone to begin practicing. "We've cried together at rehearsal," she said.
Longo encouraged the students to deal with their feelings before using their talents to help ease others' pain. In her words, it was a "teachable moment," a chance to explain that being human comes first. "I think it's important to be vulnerable as a musician and move through it," she said, "and then provide that healing to the community."
Even so, student Millie Cabrera found it tough to get through the song on Wednesday morning. "It was very difficult," she said, "especially as I recently lost someone who was very special to me. I can't imagine what family members are going through."
As the thousand-plus procession made its way through campus, dozens paused what they were doing in a show of respect.
Among the procession participants was freshman hospitality major Rayen Arias, who said when she heard the news of the bridge's collapse, she began to pray for the families affected.
"We didn't know who had been involved, but I love FIU, and for this to happen... it was family," said Aria, whose father and sister also attended FIU. "I came here because we're a community and everyone here works through it together, good or bad."
Said Rosenberg, "Now is the time to grieve together, to heal together. So let our sadness galvanize us to stay the course on goodness, to stay the course on neighborliness and to stay the course on promoting hope and opportunity, the hope and opportunity that will enable our community to rise stronger, to rise wiser and to rise better as a consequence of this terrible loss."
Janice Spann-Givens, program director of multicultural programs at MMC who is known to students as "Mama G," said, "[The vigil] was a beautiful tribute. I think a piece of all of us is suffering. We have to dig deep and find the strength to keep going."
"All of the [students] I met with since the tragedy, we've been talking about it. I have allowed them the time and taken the time with them to actually see what they're feeling and help them process their feelings," said Spann-Givens, who has been helping the students she mentors to cope with their grief. "It's critical. It's mentoring to a whole other level when you have to mentor someone through tragedy and sadness. That's what I've been trying to do all week. We feel even more connected because now they know they're not alone in what they're feeling."
Yolande Flores has worked at FIU for 27 years and today serves as executive director of finance and administration in the Division of Advancement. She acknowledged this was the worst tragedy in the university's history.
"It's important that we gather to show support for the victims and their families. It's also important to show our love for each other because that's one of the strengths of the FIU community," Flores said. "We support each other in good times and in bad. I feel like today's vigil is the beginning of our healing as a community."
Said Rosenberg, "There are a few things that are for certain. This is a strong community. This is a caring community, a community that will comfort one another through this. This is a community that rises time and again. And the other certainty is that we are going to carry the memory of the victims. We are going to carry that memory forever."