John David Whitehead wondered why he'd been crying and praying for four hours.
He sat outside the Armed Forces Career Center where Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez began shooting Thursday morning. Behind Whitehead, the sky was black, there was lightning in the distance and big rain drops started to fall.
But the hundreds of people around him at a memorial outside the center didn't leave. They were silent. They slowly shuffled their feet forward. They didn't talk, they didn't make eye contact, they just stared at a makeshift memorial in a trance. Some shook their heads in disbelief. Some were crying, holding loved ones.
Whitehead, from Knoxville, drove to Chattanooga to visit his wife's family.
"Why am I here?" he paused, and looked at the ground. "Kinda been asking myself that."
Across the street, engines roared and a radio blasted "God Bless America."
Hundreds of motorcycles met at the Sportsman's Warehouse parking lot for a rally organized by the Christian Motorcyclists Association. The motorcade passed both sites attacked by Abdulazeez as bikers paid their respects to the five men he killed.
Chris Evans, from Cleveland, heard about the event through social media. In his eyes, it wasn't a choice - he had to come. He was told there'd be about 15 bikes there.
"But I'm just looking at," he trailed off, scanning the parking lot, "just a rough guesstimate, around 500 bikes. Lot of horsepower sitting here in this parking lot."
While the two groups showed their reverence, a hearse carrying the body of a 26-year-old Naval officer passed nearby.
Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall Smith died early Saturday morning, making him the fifth victim of Thursday's shooting. Lee Highway separates the Armed Forces Career Center and Sportsman's Warehouse. Mourners gazed at the memorial. Bikers pulled into the parking lot to prepare for the rally.
In between them on Lee Highway, the white hearse passed, escorted by members of the Tennessee Highway Patrol and the Chattanooga Police Department. The motorcade drove down Lee and Amnicola highways, past the two shooting sites, before reaching the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport.
The shooting jolted Chattanoogans, who were left trying to comprehend the evil act that occurred in their community. As people asked why, they also tried to honor those who died - Smith and U.S. Marines Carson Holmquist, Thomas Sullivan, Skip Wells and David Wyatt - whether through silent prayer or by revving their Harley engines.
The motorcycle rally attracted bikers from Knoxville, Atlanta and other surrounding areas. For Evans, the shootings had a personal aspect. His son was in the recruiting office the week before.
"It broke my heart, it really did," he said. "That's somebody's kids, you know. That's the first thing I thought of."
Before the motorcade began, a man with a megaphone asked bikers to go about 45 miles per hour.
"It's not a race," he said. "We're just trying to pay our respects."
At 3:55 p.m., the procession began. Nearly all motorcycles and cars flew American flags. It took about 15 minutes for the hundreds of bikes and cars to stream out of the parking lot and cross Lee Highway, which police helped block off. As the motorcade went by, the people at the memorial turned around to watch the drivers.
"Chattanooga strong!" one man driving a truck shouted, pumping his fist at the crowd, who yelled back in approval.
After the rally left the area, silence returned to the memorial. The ground was covered with Americans flags, crosses and flowers. There were handwritten letters, some with children's and adults' handwriting. There were five teddy bears, one for each of the victims. There was even a purple heart somebody left behind.
"Man, I feel terrible," one man said walking past. "I ain't got a flag, I ain't got a flower, I ain't got nothing."
Members of the Red Cross walked around giving out free water bottles. People began to form a line on the far side of the memorial that kept growing as the afternoon went on. Most pulled out their cell phones, taking pictures of the memorial.
Whitehead wasn't surprised by the overwhelming response by the Chattanooga community. He believes when people are in distress in Tennessee, the natural response of its residents is to try and figure out how to help.
"I'm not surprised by it," he said. "It's what we do."
About an hour after the rally began across the street, the weather took a turn for the better. There were no more dark clouds. As people kept coming to the memorial and paying their respects, the sun came out.
Contact Evan Hoopfer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6731 or twitter.com/EvanHoopfer.
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