With a sea of candlelight by the ocean, family, friends and neighbors honored the nine victims of the Salon Meritage shooting, eight of whom lost their lives a year ago Friday.
The possibility of rain and potential risk of flooding didn’t deter hundreds from gathering at Eisenhower Park Thursday to remember the slain, to support the victims' families and to show solidarity with their community.
Family members had asked Seal Beach staff to not hold an official memorial on the anniversary of the tragedy, so staffers set one up the day before it.
Organizers estimated between 500 to 700 people attended.
“You guys really have stood beside me through this whole thing,” said Paul Caouette to the gathered crowd. “I can’t thank you enough.”
Caouette lost his father on Oct. 12 2011, when a gunman entered the Salon Meritage in Seal Beach and opened fire.
After shooting seven people, the man shot Caouette's father, 64-year-old David Caouette, who had been sitting in his Land Rover in the parking lot.
The incident was the deadliest mass-shooting in Orange County history.
Scott Evans Dekraai, 42, has been charged with eight murders. He has pleaded not guilty and waits trial.
Dekraai was involved in a child custody dispute with his ex-wife, hairdresser Michelle Fournier, 48, who was killed along with Randy Lee Fannin, 62; Victoria Ann Buzzo, 54; Lucia Bernice Kondas, 65; Laura Webb Elody, 46; Christy Lynn Wilson, 47; and Michele Daschbach Fast, 47.
Hattie Stretz, 74, was wounded but survived.
Nine Palm Trees
People started gathering in the park as early as 6:15 p.m. and by about 6:45 p.m. a crowd had formed.
Nine palm trees, which had been there for years, were decked with white bows in honor of each victim.
A podium, two makeshift stages, white flowers and a sign with the name of the victims stood in front of the trees.
The last rays of a beautiful sunset marked with clouds were fading when the ceremony began at 7 p.m.
As guitarist Dorothy Collins sang Broken Hallelujah, the family members and relatives of the victims assembled in front of the makeshift stage.
Some wore formal attire, others wore t-shirts and jeans. Many wore white or blue, the colors that Seal Beach locals have used to symbolize the tragedy.
Once the song finished, a series of local dignitaries addressed the crowd, acknowledging the tragedy that had brought them all together.
“There is absolutely nothing that can replace a lost soul mate, but we in the city will continue to do whatever we can in our own small ways to help ease the pain,” said Seal Beach Mayor Michael Levitt.
A Prayer For Love
Though the schedule called for people to light their candles in the middle of the ceremony, many lit their candles before the official start of the vigil.
It was a cold night and attendees wore jackets and sweaters, though some wore t-shirts with pictures of a victim or with the words “Support in Love: Seal Beach” written on a big blue heart.
Some people watched from the balconies of nearby homes or behind the makeshift stage.
Sandy Fannin, who co-owned the salon with her husband Randy until she lost him in the shooting, said that Salon Meritage had been a community gathering spot, where locals connected on a deep level.
“Salon Meritage was more than just a place where you got your hair done,” Fannin said. “My prayer is that Salon Meritage will once again be filled with love.”
“The missing members of our family live on forever as happy memories,” she added.
The salon is undergoing a major renovation and will reopen later this
year under the same name. Most of the hairdressers who worked there are
expected to return.
'You have embraced us'
Before the vigil, one woman in the crowd said “I can’t do this” to her companion, stayed for a few moments and then vanished into the crowd.
It was an emotional evening for the speakers, too.
Many of the family members who addressed the crowd were on the verge of tears or cried as they talked about the people that had meant so much to them.
Paul Caouette, who lost his father, read a letter to the community from his mother, Paula, who lost her husband:
“You have embraced us, strengthened us and guided us. Even when you were also suffering from the same senseless that affected us and our entire community,” Caouette read.
“Our family will never be the same. The laughter and vibrant life lost, is so missed but the spirit to live remains.
“You have helped us realize this. “
Many in the crowd knew people affected by the tragedy.
Justine Wong, 17, who attended with two of her friends, said she came to support the Fast family, whose daughter attends Los Alamitos High School with them.
“Our community has such love for each other,” Wong said.
Others said the tragedy hit even closer to home.
Los Alamitos resident Sheila Otton and Huntington Beach resident Kathy Rizzo said they attended because their friend Hattie Stretz was one of the victims -- though luckily, Strez survived the attack.
“She’s our best friend, we’re here to be supportive,” Otton said.
Otton said they also attended to “support all the people that were affected by this tragedy.”
Unfortunately, Hattie’s daughter Laura Webb Elody – also a friend of Otton and Rizzo -- did not survive the attack.
Rizzo wore a shirt with Elody's picture on it with the words, “In loving Memory of Laura Lee.”
“I just don’t think that God could have taken ‘em both,” Rizzo said. “The family wouldn’t have survived.”
And before the night was over, the family members released nine white balloons, one at a time, in honor of the eight victims.
City Manager Jill Ingram talked about how Seal Beach had stood tall after the “sorrow and grief that no city, no community, no family or individual should ever have to endure.”
Ingram compared the city residents to the nine palm trees behind her because the plants can survive in the harsh desert.
“Like the palms, we have endured with the capacity to bring our community back together even stronger, with the renewed commitment to each other and to Seal Beach," Ingram said.
On Friday, the anniversary of the tragedy, St. Anne’s Catholic Church will hold a memorial mass in honor of the victims at 9 a.m.
The church will open its doors from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. They will also ring their bells at 1:12 p.m. to commemorate the actual time of the incident.
-- City News Service contributed to this story