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Thousands gather in Arkansas to honor victims of ambush

memorial service

Clinton: 'I do not understand what dark force' led to shooting

JONESBORO, Arkansas (CNN) -- They stood and sang "Amazing Grace" together, a crowd estimated in the thousands, gathered to remember the five victims of a shocking schoolyard shooting.

The Rev. Fred Haustein, a local minister who opened the memorial to the five victims of last week's shooting at Westside Middle School, described the coming together of men, women and children, whose faces were stricken with sadness:

"We gather to support one another," he said.

An estimated 10,000 people were in the audience at the Arkansas State University Convocation Center for the service that focused on four simple words: faith, hope, love and healing.

Heads were bowed as Haustein called out the names of the victims -- 11-year-old Natalie Brooks, 12-year-old Paige Ann Herring, 12-year-old Stephanie Johnson, 11-year-old Brittheny Varner and the 32-year-old teacher, Shannon Wright.

Clinton's message

In a taped message, President Clinton told the grief-stricken audience to pray for the families of the five victims -- and the two suspects -- but said he does not understand the "dark force" that led to the tragedy.

President Clinton expresses his condolences
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Janet Reno speaks at the service
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Highlights from the service

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"Like all of you, I do not understand what dark force could have driven young people to do this terrible thing," said Clinton in a message taped on his six-nation tour of Africa.

"As president, I have seen many children killed by political fanatics. But in some ways, this is even harder to grasp," he said. "For now, all we can do is pray for peace and healing for the families and for Jonesboro. And, indeed, we should pray for the families of the two young suspects, for their suffering, too, must be grievous."

Clinton said the victims "made Jonesboro a better place." "Every one of them had much to live for and much still to give," he said.

The suspects

Two boys, 13-year-old Mitchell Johnson and 11-year-old Andrew "Drew" Golden, face five counts each of murder and 10 counts of battery in the attack at Westside Middle School. Police say the boys, dressed in camouflage and armed with rifles and handguns, ambushed classmates and staff members who were leaving the school building after they had triggered a fire alarm.

The boys are in jail awaiting a court hearing. They will be tried as juveniles under Arkansas law, which means they can be held only to the age of 18.

For now, there can be no understanding of the attack, Clinton said.

"St. Paul reminds us that we all see things in this life through a dark glass, that we only partly understand what is happening to us," he said. "But one day, face-to-face with God, we will see all things, even as He sees us."

For the girls and the teacher who died last week in Arkansas, that day already has arrived, the president said.

child crying

Clinton already has commented on the tragic killings in his home state several times while on his tour of Africa. He has promised an inquiry into mass killings at three schools in recent months after the grieving process is complete in Jonesboro.

'Solve the mysteries of violence'

Attorney General Janet Reno, who will be responsible for the inquiry, spoke at the memorial service, saying, "We must work with all our hearts and with all our souls... to solve the mysteries of violence and to give the children of Jonesboro, America and the world an opportunity to growth in peace."

Reno said the victims "represented the joy and the wonder of life itself."

"They walked out of school and into the hearts and minds of America," she said. "They have touched our lives and they have touched the spirit of this nation and raised us up even as we grieve for them."

She urged the people of Jonesboro to "go forward."

"The world has seen the people of Jonesboro stand together in strong, quiet dignity as you have mourned," Reno said. "You have, by your example, given us great strength and courage."

The Rev. Bruce Tippit, another local minister, read a statement from Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who did not attend the memorial service.

"You have experienced a tragedy that has touched the heart of the state, nation and the world. Equal to the tragedy is the extraordinary way you have responded with courage in the midst of danger," Huckabee said in the statement.

Coming to terms

Funeral services already have been held for all five victims. But mourners said they still could not come to terms with the killings, alleged to have been carried out because the elder of the two suspects wanted vengeance after he was jilted by a girlfriend.

woman and child hug

"I had to quit reading the papers today. I am heartbroken. I have two daughters," said Dee Russell, a 46-year-old housewife who held tight to the two young girls by her side.

Around her, solemn young children bowed their heads as they sang and prayed.

"I didn't really know them well but I cry to think that kids would do something like that. It's unbelievable," said Courtney Bice, a 13-year-old student at Westside Middle School.

Like virtually everyone else in Jonesboro, Courtney wore a white ribbon as a symbol of the tragedy.

During the memorial, a volunteer choir sang hymns they had rehearsed for the first time hours earlier. Above them hung a huge sign that read: "Faith, hope, love... healing."


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