Brian Ciancio did not know the five victims of the February 14, 2008, shootings at Northern Illinois University.
But he, like hundreds of others who attended Monday's day of reflection that marked the third anniversary of the university's darkest hour, said he wanted to honor their memory.
"This is a way of showing our respect for the victims," said Ciancio, a sophomore from South Elgin. "I wasn't here when it happened but being from South Elgin it affected us there, too, because we are so close. It was a major event and being here is eye-opening."
Northern Illinois University President John Peters led a procession of family members, friends and colleagues across a bridge over Watson Creek leading to the Forward Together Forward Memorial Garden as the university's bell tolled. There, family members laid single red and yellow roses atop the five sections of red granite representing each of the victims. The crowd of about 1,000 people stood in silence as the sun shone over Cole Hall -- the site of the shooting.
In his remarks, Peters recalled the lives of Catalina Garcia of Cicero; Gayle Dubowski of Carol Stream; Julianna Gehant of Mendota; Ryanne Mace of Carpentersville; and Daniel Parmenter of Westchester.
"Our message to you is we have not forgotten, your spirits continue to carry on and you are reflected all around this garden," Peters said.
Their message Monday, Peters said, was one of pride.
"Proud we are still moving forward. Proud we are united. Proud we are courageous. Proud we are not letting tragedy define us. Proud we are emulating their lives by illuminating the darkness with light."
Ciancio said the shooting brought the campus together and the memorial Monday was a sign that the school was moving forward.
"There is a solidarity between the students who were already here and the incoming students," Ciancio said. "There is an aura about the school now."
For some in the crowd, the day brought back painful memories of the chaos and fear that struck the campus.
Stephen Ludwig, an account technician in the Department of Research and Graduate Studies who has worked at the university for almost five years, said although he often walks by the silver flame statue flame erected in the center of the memorial garden to reflect, each year on this day is the hardest. Ludwig worked with Parmenter and Gehant on various projects.
"I came here to pay my respects, it needs to be done," Ludwig said. "It is never to be forgotten. But today I think about how much I wanted to help. I am a former fireman and EMT and I wanted so desperately to come out and help. But they locked us down and told us to stay in."
The renovation of Cole Hall began last month. Now, a chain-link fence cordons off the building that once housed the university's Department of Anthropology and School of Theater and Dance.
"Even though these changes and improvements will not erase our painful memories, I am hopeful they will bring a sense of renewal and reflect our resolve to move forward," Peters said.
Cole Hall is set to reopen in the fall.