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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘A communal sigh of relief’: Emerging from lockdown, Lewiston gathers to mourn

Photos of the victims of the Lewiston mass shooting are seen during a memorial service at Holy Family Church in Lewiston, Maine, Oct. 29, 2023. Residents in and around the city, no longer under lockdowns, spent the weekend coming together to mourn, share meals and prepare to bury their dead.

By Amelia Nierenberg

For the two days after a gunman killed 18 people and injured 13 in Lewiston, Patrick Hynes and other residents in southern Maine sat in their own homes, under a shelter-in-place order, facing their grief, their rage, in isolation.

Now, finally, they have started to share those emotions together.

“We’re social animals, whether we like it or not,” said Hynes, 65, who lives in nearby Durham and attended a vigil with his wife, Heather, in Lisbon on Saturday night. “We need other people.”

This past weekend, as Mainers began to process the deadliest mass shooting in the nation this year, they finally started to mourn in person. They shared meals and filled churches. Some just gave one another a hug.

“It’s a sigh of relief,” Hynes said. “It’s a communal sigh of relief.”

On Sunday, people gathered for a vigil from across the area to crowd into the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, in the heart of Lewiston.

Inside, hundreds crowded the pews. Outside, hundreds more stood in the cold, candles in hand, watching a livestream.

“This really hits home,” said John Breton, 51, who was holding an American flag at the back of the vigil.

“It just makes me feel like I lost one of my own, one of my own brothers, one of my own sisters, one of my own children,” he continued.

During the vigil, Kevin Bohlin, a leader of the deaf community, signed the names of the deaf people who were killed: Billy Brackett, Bryan MacFarlane, Joshua Seal, Stephen Vozzella.

He held up his hand in the sign for ‘I love you’ — thumb out, index finger up, pinkie up. “Share this sign, and let us not forget those who have been taken from us,” he signed.

Hundreds of people raised their right hands and signed along.

A day earlier, at the Saturday vigil, a pastor read the first names of the 18 people who died. A mother wrapped her arms around her teenage son. A husband relit his wife’s candle, doused by the wind. Three people leaned their foreheads together around their flame, eyes closed, a windscreen of sadness. Only a few sniffles broke the silence.

They were comforted to be together, to no longer look at the woods with fear. But for people who survived the shootings — or who lost friends — the pain is deep and will be long-lasting.

“I knew, like, eight of the people who were injured,” said Leia Turcotte, 15, shaking in her khaki Scouts uniform as troop leaders stood nearby to hold the girls.

Her father, Travis, who is deaf, would have been at Schemengees Bar & Grille, one of the two locations the gunman attacked Wednesday night. Leia’s father would have played cornhole with his friends but had to skip the game that night because Leia’s brother had a soccer banquet.

Her dad is alive, but he lost a lot of friends. And, Leia said, five children in the deaf community do not have fathers anymore.

“I knew all of them,” she said.

Leia’s friends at the vigil, all Scouts in Troop 2019, tightened around her, as her eyes filled with tears. They were there, in full regalia, to be together after days of calling one another, and then calling again, just to make sure everyone was still OK.

“I was frozen by the thought of losing them,” Rosemary Boro, 17, said in a whisper. “I almost couldn’t breathe.”

Around the area, people are wrestling with how they can focus once again on school, how to talk about the shooting with their children, how to reenter normal life.

And families are starting to make arrangements to bury their dead.

Gerry Burpee, director of a funeral home in Lewiston, said in a text that he was trying to put his emotions to the side for now.

“Funeral directors, in my experience, are great at helping others but unable to process their own grief,” he said.

He helped embalm one of the people who died and said he has been “kind of on autopilot” since the shootings.

“I’m just buckling down until the services and memorials are over,” he said.

On Wednesday night, Breslin Macneir was introducing his father, Keith, to some of the men in his union at Schemengees Bar & Grille. The son then left to attend a union meeting. When he came back to pick up his father, police cars were everywhere. At about midnight, Macneir’s father, 64, was pronounced dead.

“Moving forward doesn’t feel like it’s possible right now,” he said Saturday.

Far from Lewiston, Alicia LaChance, 75, of Okeechobee, Florida, has had to spend the first days of grief away from most of her family.

On Wednesday night, LaChance was watching “Celebrity Wheel of Fortune” when she saw the news from Maine. She knew that her daughter Tricia Asselin, 53, worked at the bowling alley that was attacked.

“I picked up the phone and called her and let it ring, and ring, and ring,” she said. “And there was no answer.”

Another daughter, Bobbi Nichols, was also there at the bowling alley. She survived, but Asselin did not.

LaChance plans to fly up on Monday. “I want to go see my daughter,” she said, her voice breaking as sobs rose. “And I want to put my arms around her and bring her home.”

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