AURORA – Aurora native and Naperville resident Renee Miklosik said she remembers where she was on her way home after meeting her parents for dinner in Aurora on Feb. 15, 2019. She said she thought it was a little odd to see three Aurora police squad cars rush past her, and then three more, and then several more police cars from surrounding agencies, including Joliet and Batavia, following close behind.
"At that point, I didn't know what had happened, but God ... I knew at that point something had happened, but I didn't know what or where," Miklosik said.
Miklosik was one of dozens of visitors who came to lay carnations and pay their respects at the crosses of Vicente Juarez of Oswego, Josh Pinkard of Oswego, Russell Beyer of Bristol, Trevor Wehner of Sheridan and Clayton Parks of Elgin during a day of remembrance event for the shooting's first anniversary on Saturday, Feb. 15, at the Aurora Historical Society David L. Pierce Art & History Center.
John Jaros, executive director for the Aurora Historical Society, said the white crosses and memorial items displayed were placed outside of the Henry Pratt building immediately after the tragedy until the end of March 2019. After that, he said, the local historical society became custodians of those artifacts.
“We were charged with preserving them … for posterity so that long after we’re all gone, this day will be able to be remembered,” Jaros said.
Jaros said the items not only mark a tragic day in the city's history, but, more important, represent the lives of people who have loved ones who went off to work that morning but never came home to their families. He said he extended his deepest sympathies to members of some of those families who came to the day of remembrance and invited attendees to stay after the ceremony for as long as they liked.
“And when you leave this place and go about your lives, remember always to love your families and be kind to your fellow man,” Jaros said.
Aurora Deputy Mayor Chuck Nelson said the day had been met with mixed emotions, but he had never been more honored to witness the city's overwhelming response to the shooting. He said a long year has passed since one man took the lives of five innocent people and most community members had to come to terms with the fact that something of this magnitude could happen in their city.
“To the families and those who lost loved ones, I can’t imagine the pain and suffering that you have endured over the past year," Nelson said. "All we can offer is our continued support and our prayers that you will eventually find an inner peace and God’s comfort.”
U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-Naperville, attended the Feb. 15 event. He said it's important to remember what happened in Aurora a year ago to hopefully prevent such tragedies from happening again.
Foster said it wasn't the first time he's experienced a tragedy as a member of Congress. He remembers inheriting a community in mourning after the mass shooting on Feb. 14, 2008, at Northern Illinois University, where five students were shot and killed by a gunman opening fire in a lecture hall.
"And I'm frustrated that in those 12 years we've accomplished so little" in terms of gun laws and policy at the federal level, Foster said.
Aurora poet laureate Fermina Ponce read a poem and singer and songwriter Bradley Keven Green performed a song at the Feb. 15 event in observance of the shooting.
Family members of those who died in the shooting and relatives of police officers who were injured during the incident declined comment before the service.
At 1:24 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 15 – the same time the first call came in a year ago – those at the memorial service shared in a moment of silence with the Aurora Police Department as dispatchers read the names of the five victims who were killed a year ago. The names of the officers injured also were read: Rey Rivera, John Cebulski, Marco Gomez, James Zegar and Adam Miller.
"One year ago today, the city of light turned dark," Aurora Police Chief Kristen Ziman said over a police radio frequency to all police units. "We remember those who we lost and we honor all of our officers who ran toward gunfire.
"Our citizens are in capable hands because of the men and women of the Aurora Police Department who are the first line of defense of this fine city," Ziman said over the police radio. "Thank you for your sacrifice and may we continue to be Aurora strong."
Multiple police officials welcomed Gomez, who was shot in the right thigh while responding to the shooting a year ago, back to full duty through the radio Feb. 15. Gomez was cleared to return without restriction exactly one year after the shooting, according to Ziman in a Feb. 12 social media post.
"Welcome back to duty," one Aurora first responder said, their voice breaking. "It’s great to have you back."
Yolanda Kokayi, spokeswoman for Henry Pratt parent company Mueller Water Products, said in a Feb. 14 written statement that the company also will have a private day of remembrance for the first anniversary of the mass shooting.
Kokayi said in the statement that the company is grateful for the Aurora Police Department and first responders for their heroic actions a year ago, along with the support from members of the Aurora community and around the world.
"We will always remember Russell Beyer, Vicente Juarez, Clay Parks, Josh Pinkard and Trevor Wehner," Kokayi said in the statement. "As we continue to honor their lives and legacies, our thoughts are with the victims’ families and our employees who have been impacted by this tragedy."
Miklosik said it was important for her to attend the event hosted by the local historical society a year after the shooting because she wanted to get a more holistic understanding of what happened that day. While "Aurora strong" might sound cliche to someone on the outside looking in, she said, the last year shows how the city lives that phrase and means it.
"People care a lot about what happens to their neighbors," Miklosik said. "And I think we live in a political climate that makes you think that you don't, but this community is living proof that people do care about what happens to their friends and neighbors and the people that live around them."