The thunderstorms from earlier in the afternoon were long gone once the crowd began gathering. Many held up signs as they proceeded in, a few reading, "Aurora has hope." As prelude, the Aurora Symphony Brass Quintet played deliberately.
The scene was reverent at Sunday's vigil for the victims of Friday's mass shooting in Colorado. Applause broke out through the standing throngs as military personnel made their way to the front. Twelve lit candles were placed along the edge of a large metal sculpture in front of the crowd to honor the 12 who lost their lives at the Century 16 movie theater, as well-armed snipers stood on the tops of buildings nearby.
Aurora resident Christy Ranzanberger said she felt compelled to come to the memorial because she "wanted to take action." She says she lives just 10 minutes from the theater where the shooting took place, and for her, the days since have been a jumble of emotions.
"I've felt sadness. I felt anger ... I feel like my peace of mind has been shaken," Ranzanberger said.
Earlier in the day, President Obama met with families of the victims to offer the nation's sympathy. In an address following the hospital visits, the president looked for hope in the sadness.
"It reminds you that even in the darkest of days, life continues and people are strong," the president said, after detailing the recovery of two victims. "Out of this darkness, a brighter day is going to come."
At 6:30 p.m., the Living Hope Baptist Church Choir formally opened the memorial event, with an a capella rendition of "Our God Is an Awesome God." Some in the crowd, estimated to be at least 4,000, sang along.
Family members of the victims entered a short time later, some holding placards with pictures of lost loved ones. Sustained applause and cheers greeted their entrance, as the choir repeated a steady chorus of amens.
As the families took their seats, the brass quintet broke into an almost New Orleans second-line rendition of the gospel standard "Just a Closer Walk With Thee." Religious overtones were present throughout the event, with six religious officials on the program.
Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan said explanations for the tragedy might be impossible to find. But in spite of that, he said, "Tonight we reach out to each other, and love each other, and love our neighbors.
"While our hearts are broken, our community is not," Hogan said. "We will reclaim our city in the name of goodness, kindness and compassion."
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper continued what became a trend for the night — refusing to name shooting suspect James Holmes, even as he praised the Aurora Police Department's speedy response the night of the tragedy.
"Literally, within seconds, they had apprehended the suspect, and I refuse to say his name," Hickenlooper said.
In one of the more emotional moments of the night, Hickenlooper led the audience in a call and response. One by one, he read the names of the 12 who lost their lives, the crowd responding to each with, "We will remember," the chant growing stronger each time it was repeated. Family for each of the 12 stood solemnly when their names were called, some releasing balloons into the sky, tear-stained eyes straining to watch them float away, a still bright sun peeking through the cloudy, powder-blue sky.
The thousands gathered sang "Amazing Grace" in unison as the families of the victims exited the service, carrying single white roses and candles. In a telling sign, once they were gone, many in the crowd lingered, hugging strangers, sharing stories of loss and grief and crying with one another.
For a community that has spent days searching for answers and solace, the grassy lawn outside of the Aurora Municipal Center seemed a perfect place to look.
James Holmes is expected to make his first court appearance Monday.
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