Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn joined hundreds of mourners gathered at Northern Illinois University on Saturday to mark the day one year ago when a gunman fatally shot five students in a lecture hall before turning the gun on himself.
School administrators, students, and friends and families of the victims attended a commemoration ceremony and a wreath laying at a planned memorial site near the still-closed Cole Hall. Later, after the sun had gone down, hundreds stood outside the school's student center holding vigil with candles for a moment of silence.
Courtney Roy, 20, visited the campus Saturday for the first time to remember childhood friend Gayle Dubowski, who was fatally shot by Steven Kazmierczak on Feb. 14, 2008. She attended the service in the university's darkened convocation center, where students on stage recited quotes from family and friends about each of the people killed.
"She would've wanted me to be here," Roy said. "She always pushed me, and she's pushing me now."
School president John Peters said the community had been "strengthened by a renewed sense of unity and purpose." He was joined by Quinn and the victims' families in hanging wreaths at the site, where five markers engraved with the names of each student killed, along with the words, "Forward Together," stood.
'It could've been anybody'
Police said Kazmierczak, a 27-year-old former NIU student, stepped from behind a screen on the lecture hall stage, carrying four guns. He fired dozens of shots into the geology class.
Killed were Dubowski, 20; Catalina Garcia, 20; Julianna Gehant, 32; Ryanne Mace, 19; and Daniel Parmenter, 20. Nineteen other people were wounded.
Officials and friends have said Kazmierczak struggled with mental health troubles, but no motive has been determined and no suicide note was ever found.
Adekunle Sosina, a 22-year-old senior from Chicago, appeared shaken as he left the service. He said he would have been in Cole Hall if he hadn't skipped a class.
"I feel like it could've been anybody," he said. "You have to pay homage to your fellow students."
University officials on Saturday announced a plan to plant 20 trees and erect five slabs of granite on a site near Cole Hall as a permanent memorial. Each stone would be engraved with a victim's name.
Pushing through tragedy
The survivors have found different ways to cope. Some, like Maria Ruiz-Santana, who was shot in the throat, found closure in a visit to Cole Hall. Harold Ng, who was struck in the head by shotgun pellets, has turned to his faith.
"There's an anxiousness," Scott Peska, director of NIU's Office of Support and Advocacy, said of the nearly 25,000-member student body. "The whole campus, they're remembering how they were impacted."
Ruiz-Santana, who previously wanted a career in law enforcement, wants to be a police officer and even interned with the NIU campus police last semester. She wants to help victims of mass shootings and is considering getting a gun license.
"I'm not afraid of guns even after what happened to me," she said.
After Ruiz-Santana was shot, she lay bleeding and gasping for air in the lecture hall aisle. She heard gunshot blasts and saw the gunman's feet walk past her.
"Even when I was there just laying on the floor, it was just so unreal," she said.
Then after a few minutes, the shooting stopped. Later, the authorities arrived.
Ruiz-Santana credits NIU police chief Don Grady with saving her life that Valentine's Day. He held her hand and talked to her to keep her from going into shock.
"He keeps denying it, but I still believe he is my hero," Ruiz-Santana said. "I don't know if I would have been here if it wasn't for him."
Returning to the scene
It was Grady who took Ruiz-Santana and her parents into Cole Hall just two months after the shootings. Visiting Cole Hall meant convincing herself that it actually happened, she said, that she survived and had put it behind her.
Grady said he's taken 10 groups of people into Cole Hall this past year.
"I do ask if it's something they're certain they want to do," Grady said. "It's not the easiest thing to go in there."
Walking into Cole Hall brought Ruiz-Santana flashbacks of when Kazmierczak stepped on to the lecture hall's stage and started firing.
"I wanted to go back because I felt that was the way for me to heal completely, emotionally," she said. "Right after I got out of the room, I felt like it was over. The doors are closed. Let's move on."
For Ng, a 22-year-old communications major who was shot in the back of his head, his scars — both physical and emotional — remain.
Recently his mom commented on the marks on his scalp while giving him a haircut. Ng's mind also spins when he thinks about how he could have died that day.
"I've always had those questions," he said. "What if it was me? Why was I lucky?"
Since the shootings, Ng said he's followed through on some of his life passions, like becoming a worship leader at the Baptist Campus Ministry.
"(The shootings) gave me the motivation to do things I wouldn't normally do, get involved more," Ng said.
As for Ruiz-Santana, she feels that she enjoys life more.
"It's helped me be more mature than what I was before," she said. "It just makes me a better person."