A week to the day after a gunman opened fire in a theater and cast a pall over Lafayette, the community came together in a ceremony sometimes wrenching and sometimes filled with joyous music in an event organizers hoped would help start the healing process.
“This incident will not overshadow this wonderful community we call home. These wounds are deep, but they will heal in time. We will recover, and we will get through this,” Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft told a crowd gathered Thursday evening at Blackham Coliseum.
Befitting Acadiana, the ceremony was largely a musical service, with a series of local bands offering their talents to celebrate the two young women who were killed and the nine others injured when John “Rusty” Houser, a mentally unstable drifter with no known ties to the community, fired his handgun into a crowd at The Grand 16 Theatre before taking his own life.
And there were tears, difficult to hold back as friends and family members of 33-year-old Jillian Johnson and 21-year-old Mayci Breaux talked of beautiful lives cut too short.
Breaux’s mother, Dondie Breaux, described her daughter as kind, gentle, strong, soft-hearted and level-headed, a young woman who had just begun studies to become a radiology technician and who was at the theater on the evening of July 23 with the man she wanted to marry.
“She had her life all planned out,” the mother said, surrounded on stage by family and trying to keep her emotions in check to make it through a statement she wrote for the event.
Breaux said she has found some consolation in the way the shooting has pulled the community together.
“This tragedy has brought people together from all over the world,” she said.
In the days since the shooting, much attention has focused on Johnson, an entrepreneur, graphic designer, photographer and musician — among other talents — who was a vibrant voice in the Lafayette community.
“She really was that special, that beautiful, that talented and loved, and she gave it her all most every day,” said City-Parish Public Works Director Kevin Blanchard, a friend of her family who read a statement on their behalf. “… Your words and support, not just for Jillian but for all the victims, have kept us upright and moving the face of hardship and pain.”
Craft, the police chief, took the stage to honor the paramedics, police officers and others who responded to the tragedy.
He said the first officer arrived at the theater 10 seconds after receiving a call about the shooting.
“Within that next minute, four more officers were on scene and the decision was made to go in and engage the shooter. That’s true bravery,” Craft said.
He said the officers arrived at a chaotic scene and quickly made the decision to take action.
“I want to say you rushed in not knowing the full extent of the danger,” the chief said, addressing the group of officers who made the initial entry into the theater. “This quick response likely foiled the shooter’s attempt to injure more people and prevented his escape.”
It was, Craft said, “true bravery at its finest.”
In closing remarks Thursday, City-Parish President Joey Durel characterized last weeks’ shooting as “an attack on our humanity.”
“This is Lafayette, Louisiana,” he said. “This isn’t supposed to happen.”
Durel said he has faith the community will recover, but in the meantime, “I know a lot of us hug our children a lot harder since last Thursday night.”