ROSEBURG, ORE. — The frenzy and fear that gripped this tightknit community in the days after it lost nine of its own gave way Sunday morning to hope and healing as the streets fell nearly silent and the church pews overflowed.
Residents here say they are no longer focused on the gunman who terrorized teachers and students at Umpqua Community College last week. Instead, they want to remember those who lost their lives and celebrate those who survived. They say Roseburg is a community on the mend.
“The shooter is gone. It’s about the people who are living and the people who were lost,” resident Debra Atkinson, 58, said before a prayer service Sunday. “This community is the real survivor.”
The Douglas County sheriff’s office is investigating the rampage that left 10 dead, including the shooter, identified as 26-year-old Chris Harper Mercer. Sheriff John Hanlin said Mercer was enrolled at the community college, where he opened fire in a writing class Thursday morning. After engaging police in a firefight, Mercer died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Hanlin said, citing preliminary autopsy results.
Several others were wounded, including Cheyeanne Fitzgerald, 16, who was shot in the back and lost a kidney. On Sunday, officials at Mercy Hospital Medical Center said her condition had been upgraded to fair. Three other survivors remained at PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center in Springfield, a trauma center about 70 miles north.
Meanwhile, officials prepared to reopen the Umpqua campus Monday to permit students to collect belongings left behind during Thursday’s chaotic evacuation. Board member Sharon Rice said grief counselors will be available and that classes would be suspended until the week of Oct. 12.
“Everybody is just devastated,” said Rice, who has taught for 24 years at the school. “It seems like those things don’t happen in little old Roseburg.”
The building where the shooting occurred will remain off-limits to students while classrooms are repaired. Bullet holes in the walls will be patched and cleaning crews will mop and sanitize the floors.
Larry Hincker, the former spokesman for Virginia Tech, where a gunman killed 32 students and faculty in 2007, said that in the aftermath of such a tragedy the school community seeks a quick return to normalcy.
“People want to get control of their lives back,” Hincker said. “The students really wanted to be there. That was home. That was where their friends were. They just felt better recovering from this trauma together.”
Few additional details emerged Sunday about Mercer. Police have said he had a fascination with weaponry and kept a small arsenal in an apartment about two miles from the campus. Between that apartment, which Mercer shared with his mother, and the crime scene, police recovered 14 guns.
Mercer and his mother had moved to Oregon more than a year ago from Torrance, Calif., near Los Angeles. There, Mercer had sought advanced handgun training at an elite shooting facility. Firearms expert Eloy Way said Mercer contacted him two years ago about enrolling in marksmanship classes. Way, a veteran private security contractor, said he quickly determined that Mercer was not fit for the kind of advanced training he was seeking.
“The more I talked to him, the more I had this feeling that I didn’t want to train this guy,” said Way, 37. “He was just really anxious. . . . He seemed really immature and high-strung — not one of the types of attitudes I want to train.”
In retrospect, Way said, he feels fortunate that he trusted his instincts about Mercer. He lamented not being able to prevent last week’s attack.
“I never want the training I give to be used for the wrong reasons,” Way said. But “you can’t report somebody for being a weirdo.”
Julia Winstead, who lived in the same Torrance apartment complex as Mercer and his mother, Laurel Harper, said the mother had mentioned that her son had “mental issues.”
“But you know, my question is, if they knew he had a mental issue, why did she let him have guns?” Winstead said.
So far, Mercer’s family has offered no answer to that question. But the decision made Roseburg the latest in a series of small towns to emerge from anonymity and enter the grim pantheon of places where an angry, male gunman took multiple lives.
“Now we’re going to be on the map,” said Roseburg-area resident Earl Skonberg, 76.
Many in the town of 22,000 residents say they have a connection to someone killed or wounded in the shooting.
“We’re all part of a community, a family,” said Renee Cripe, 64. “Suddenly, it’s like our family has been taken away. This is a small town. We’re innocent here. We’re protected. I hope that doesn’t change. I hope that doesn’t go away.”
By Sunday morning, pastors at pulpits across town were preaching messages of restoration. At a small church in south Roseburg, members of the congregation were sitting outside the sanctuary talking about how to cope. Pastor Will Irwin at Family Church said he preached a message of forgiveness.
“Some are angry at the shooter, some are angry at politicians, some are angry at officials,” Irwin said. “This gave people a chance to process. They were looking for that.”
At another church across town, evangelist Billy Graham’s crisis counselors camped out. Inside, the pastor spoke about a community that would be forever changed.
“Roseburg has been plunged into a unique set of cities and communities [where] mass tragedy, mayhem and murder have taken place,” Pastor Ron Laeger said at Wellspring Bible Fellowship, before paying tribute to the victims.
“There’s almost a sense of defiance here: We’re not letting this define us,” Cripe said. “When you get a wound and it forms a scar, it’s so much stronger than it was before.”
Rob Kuznia in Torrance contributed to this report.