Antonio Melgar said he couldn't shake the nervousness he felt Tuesday morning, standing in front of Highland Park City Hall, just blocks from where his wife and 11-year-old son were injured in last year's July 4th parade shooting.
“It feels a bit strange. There are a lot of people here, and you're just standing here thinking it could happen again,” said Melgar. “It will always be in your head. But here we are.”
Melgar and his wife overcame the feelings, joining thousands of others in a solemn memorial service at City Hall marking one year since a shooter wreaked havoc on marchers, killing seven people and injuring dozens.
The community gathers to remember those lost and to “reclaim” the march route from tragic memories.
“This morning, we remember those who were killed and those whose lives changed forever. Our hearts will always ache for the families and friends left to grapple with the pain of their loss,” said Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering in remarks at the ceremony. “There is nothing we can say that will fill the torn holes in their hearts or to heal those who are gravely injured.”
The ceremony is one of several events scheduled to commemorate the day. People also gather for picnics. In the evening, Gary Sinise is scheduled to perform and a drone show is scheduled to light up the sky in lieu of fireworks. City officials said more than 5,000 people had registered to attend.
The victims' families sat side by side at the ceremony, together in their grief, wiping away tears as Rotering addressed the crowd. Among them was Alejo Toledo, son of Nicolas Toledo, who was shot dead in the incident. Alejo Toledo and his family wore black shirts with the image of their beloved Nicolas.
“I carry my father in my heart. I have fond memories of him,” said Alejo Toledo. “My family and I are all here united. I want to thank you for all the support people give us. It is a very unified city.”
Melgar said the last year was very hard on his family. His wife and son are both recovering from the wounds on their feet, but the emotional burden will last much longer. But he said they would not let the incident stop them from enjoying their holiday.
“I think we're fine, we're not scared, it's been a year since it happened,” said Melgar. “It was very scary, but we made it here.”
Hundreds of attendees wore blue shirts with the words “We are Highland Park” or “Highland Park Strong” emblazoned on them, a small example of how the community came together after the shootings.
“We will never forget what happened here, but we, Highland Park, will not be defined by it. We come together today, united in memories and heartbreak, but also refusing to let fear and hate prevail,” Rotering said.
The crowd held a minute of silence to honor those killed. They are Toledo, Katie Goldstein, Irina McCarthy, Kevin Michael McCarthy, Stephen Straus, Jacki Lovi Sundheim and Eduardo Uvaldo.
Illinois Sens Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth and Governor JB Pritzker attended.
“My heart is heavy, and it hurts so much for Highland Park today. As a proud member of Congress and senator for the great State of Illinois, I will stop at nothing to find ways to prevent another heartbreaking shooting,” Durbin said in a statement.
“When families gathered in Highland Park to mark the Fourth of July last year, they were there to celebrate life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness,” Duckworth said in a statement. “They woke up that morning excited to be proud of our nation and celebrate America at its best. Instead, they experienced the worst. One year later, I think of the families who have lost loved ones and the communities forever affected by this tragedy. For the sake of the seven missing people, and all the survivors of gun violence who have experienced the unimaginable, we must get the weapons of war off our streets.”
President Joe Biden in a statement commended Illinois lawmakers for banning assault weapons — such as those used in the Highland Park shooting — in the state and urged federal lawmakers to follow their lead.
“Their accomplishments will save lives. But that won't erase their sorrow. It is not going to bring back the seven Americans who were killed in Highland Park or heal the wounds and trauma that so many others will continue to carry,” Biden said. “And as we've seen over the last few days, much more needs to be done in Illinois and across America to address the epidemic of gun violence that is tearing our communities apart.”
Tuesday morning, Rotering, the Brady gun control nonprofit, more than 80 national and state organizations, and gun violence survivors released a letter calling for a federal assault weapon ban.
“We need to address this very real epidemic for public health and safety,” Rotering said. “There is no reason we should live like this. We know from our counterpart countries that no other country has had an experience like this, and we need to stop the normalization of gun violence. This is not the way of life of a civilized society. We deserve better.”
Security for Tuesday's event was thorough. Trucks blocked traffic from entering downtown Highland Park, police with long guns were seen on several rooftops, security combed through every bag at checkpoints and law enforcement was present on nearly every corner.
The city is not holding a traditional parade this year, instead deciding to march as a community along the parade route to reclaim shared space.
“No one wants a march. It's inappropriate, but it's important to us to say evil doesn't win and this is our march route. And it is our community that we are taking back,” Rotering told reporters ahead of the event.
Susan Vanderhorst, 70, walked with thousands of members of her community along the parade route. Even after a year, he says he can still imagine fire trucks flying down Central Avenue to help the injured. Vanderhorst said it was a challenge to muster up the courage to attend the event and hoped a parade would take place.
“I only came because I thought we needed to have another march,” said Vanderhorst. “I just have a core fear inside of me that is really hard to get rid of, and I wouldn't be here today if it weren't for this event.”
Vanderhorst said he didn't want Robert Crimo III, the man accused of shooting, to dictate how they lived the rest of their lives.
“I don't want those people to take away our freedom, our children can enjoy the parade,” said Vanderhorst. “We can't stop.”