Chattanooga unites in grief

CHATTANOOGA, TENN. - Grief has draped itself over this mountain town like a flag covering a fallen serviceman’s coffin.

Outside businesses, government buildings and houses of worship, Old Glory flutters in the hot wind at half-mast. Business marquees offer messages of bereavement. People talk in hushed tones about the acts of terror that struck on Thursday, and words often dissolve into tears.

“This is a great city with a broken heart,” Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said during an interfaith service held at Olivet Baptist Church. The state’s two senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker; U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke and Police Chief Fred Fletcher were among the officials who spoke. Representatives of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths spoke as well.

“The word I’ve heard the most since (Thursday) is ‘heartbroken,’” Alexander said to the packed sanctuary that at times cried, prayed, sang and applauded as speakers urged peace and unity.

Across town, at the Texas Roadhouse restaurant, manager Doug Flack held a simpler ceremony of sorts, setting a table set in memory of the four slain Marines.

“I felt like this was the least we could do,” said Flack, who served in the corps and hails from a family full of military men. “These Marines were loved, respected and deserved more than we could ever give them.”

Asked to talk about the feelings he’s working through, Flack became silent for a moment, then found his voice again.

“I’m still working through that,” he said. “A lot emotions.”

The sign outside Chattanooga Motors reads, “Heroes fell. We grieve.” Manager Idriss Barr, a native New Yorker who still recalls the pain and panic of Sept. 11, said Thursday’s shooting summoned familiar pangs.

“My first reaction was, how could it be so close?” he said. His business is just down the road from the military recruitment center where the gunman began his rampage. When he heard the sirens, he turned on the news fearing a building might be on fire nearby.

“I feel as if our community and our country need to come together,” said Barr, whose father served in the U.S. Navy.

Less than a mile away, a steady stream of mourners paid their respects on Thursday outside the bullet-scarred recruitment office. U.S. Navy veteran Jeff Marks marched solemnly up to a display of flags and flowers left by others and gave the memorial a sharp salute.

“This is a time when we need to help each other,” he said.

U.S. Army veteran Diondra Pointer planted flags into the ground, then knelt to pray.

“My heart really hurts,” she said. “It’s sad. These were fathers, brothers, sons of somebody. I just wanted to pay my respects.”

News of the shooting was surreal at first, she said.

“Chattanooga’s such a small community,” she said. “We don’t really have a lot of what’s been going on in the world - terrorist acts - here. You think you’re safe. This war has spilled over into our communities. None of us are safe, are we?”