L to R: Susan Meyers, Noshaba Afzal, Andrea Nicolette, all of Gilroy, bow their heads during a candlelight vigil at Gilroy City Hall on Monday, July 29, 2019 in Gilroy, Calif. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

At Gilroy Garlic Festival vigils, residents pray for peace

GILROY, Calif. _ As the sun began to slip in the sky on Monday, 25 hours after the shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, Mark Turner, president of the local Chamber of Commerce, stepped onto the makeshift stage and gazed at hundreds of faces.

Families had arrived outside Gilroy City Hall together, some rolling out yoga mats and setting up lawn chairs, others leaning against one another as they soaked in the grief and love around them.

As small children giggled and played on the grass, Turner asked everyone who had attended the festival to raise their hands.

“Most everybody here,” Turner said, to nods from the crowd. “I know everyone here has a story to tell of ‘What if.’”

The vigil was organized by Daniel Almeida, 30, an electrician who lives in Gilroy. He created a Facebook group at 9 a.m. Monday, and interest grew so quickly that he said he left work to spend the day putting the event together.

The vigil was planned by volunteers, many of them Gilroy residents, he said, who donated a stage, a speaker system, bottled water and money to buy candles. Others walked through the crowd with trash bags and manned a sign-up sheet for speakers.

“Gilroy is a family,” said his wife, Alexandra Almeida, 30, as she balanced their 18-month-old son, William, on her hip. “It’s always felt like that.”

The crowd listened to speakers who grappled with grief, disbelief and anger that the crown jewel of their town had been marred by violence.

Standing by a tree, Julio Villalobos, 21, and Annalissa Robles, 21, were handed a small piece of paper with lyrics to “Amazing Grace.” They whispered, “Thank you.”

The pair, both still shocked by Sunday’s shooting, were left feeling as if anything could happen at any moment.

“Waking up this morning you feel like, maybe this was a dream,” Villalobos said.

“It seems like you’re in a daze,” Robles added.

Nearby, 34-year-old Eloy Ortiz stood quietly watching the hundreds gathered at the vigil.

“It’s surreal,” he said. “This really hurts me. We lost three lives. Three young people, and we’re never going to get them back.”

Ortiz said his mother, sister and niece were at the festival and helped some of those who were shot. One of his sister’s friends was shot in the hip and was recovering at a hospital, he said.

“We need to stay strong and move forward together,” Ortiz said.

About a mile away, the doors of St. Mary Parish were open for a community prayer vigil and rosary. A light scent of garlic was in the air.

Standing outside, the Rev. Michael Hendrickson said Monday night’s service was about prayer.

“A prayer for the living and a prayer for the dead,” he said.

Inside, hundreds of residents made their way into wooden pews. Some hugged neighbors and friends, holding one another for several seconds. A small pamphlet of the evening’s program was handed out.

“Thank you all for joining us tonight’s prayer service. Please continue to pray for the victims and their loved ones,” the back of the program read. “Gilroy is a tight-knit community and, with the help of our Lord, we will come out of this stronger and more unified.”

Fernando Lopez, a shooting survivor and parishioner, told those inside the packed church that he was at the festival operating a lemonade stand to help raise money for missionary work in Mexico.

“When the shooting began I threw myself to the ground and waited until the shooting was over,” he said. “After the shooting was over, I called my wife to tell her I was safe and began searching for my children like everybody else.”

Lopez said a good Samaritan drove his son to a safe location until he could pick him up.

“I’ve had all sorts of emotions since yesterday,” he said. “Together tonight we’re starting to heal. You’re helping me heal.”

As the church sang “Prayer of St. Francis,” Pamela Cardova, 53, couldn’t hold back her tears.

Her thoughts were on 6-year-old Stephen Romero, one of three people killed in Sunday’s shooting.

“My heart goes out to him and his family,” she said. “Everybody needs to come together for everyone. We’ve got to love one another.”

The service closed with a prayer recited in the congregants’ native tongues, Spanish and English colliding into a rumble that gathered in momentum as the prayer neared its end, asking for peace.

By Ruben Vives, Laura J. Nelson, Matthew Ormseth And Jaclyn Cosgrove, Los Angeles Times

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