A community came together Tuesday evening to grieve the loss of one of its youngest.
Thousands came to the First Baptist Church of Cottondale in Paradise, Texas, to pay respects at a vigil to 7-year-old Athena Strand, who was found dead after first being reported missing last week.
Many of those in attendance wore pink, Strand’s favorite color, in her honor.
The Wise County Sheriff’s Office said that traffic was backed up to Boyd, some 10 miles away, with people attempting to join the vigil.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram estimated there were approximately 2,500 people in attendance, or roughly five times the size of Paradise, with a population of around 500.
Children laid flowers at a memorial cross outside the church lit by lights emitting a pink beam. Mourners sang the popular gospel song Amazing Grace and lit candles in remembrance of Strand.
“You all are amazing people,” Maitlyn Presley Gandy, Strand’s mother, told the crowd, some of whom shouted words of support.
Pictures of Strand lined the stage as Gandy spoke. She said Athena loved every person she met.
“I want people to know Athena for Athena,” she said, visibly emotional.
Tom Valenzia told The Dallas Express that he moved to Paradise from Saginaw five years ago and that the community here is particularly close-knit.
He said the community is normally very peaceful and quiet, so when tragedy happens, people tend to come together to support one another. He said it was difficult to understand why this happened.
“I think justice needs to be done,” Valenzia said. “There could be a death penalty, and I think it’s warranted in this case.”
Tanner Lynn Horner, a 31-year-old Fed-Ex driver, is accused of the abduction and subsequent murder of Strand. Authorities discovered her body after Horner reportedly confessed to his alleged crime.
If convicted, Horner could face the death penalty.
Members of the Paradise Fire Department, who were heavily involved in the initial search and rescue effort when the Amber Alert was first issued, spoke with The Dallas Express, asking their comments be attributed to the entire department.
“When a community this small suffers, everyone feels it,” said the firefighters, who, in honor of Strand, all wore Pink. “She lived in our community.”
The firefighters said that attending the vigil was part of their healing process.
Charles Pugh, the pastor at the First Baptist Church of Cottondale, led the gathering in prayer.
“We’ve experienced an unimaginable evil,” he said but assured the crowd that Strand was in heaven before leading them in a gospel hymn.
Other pastors spoke briefly to the crowd, offering words of condolence and prayer as well as assurance that Strand was in heaven.
Pastor Chris Hurst of Grace Fellowship Church in Paradise said, “It’s normal to ask why, but there’s no easy answer and no why that’s going to take away the pain. The only way to get through the pain is to look forward to the hope God has for us. So, we stand arm-in-arm with one another, love one another, encourage one another.”
Lindsay Thompson, Strand’s first-grade teacher, told the crowd about some of her unique traits.
“She was the most free-spirited 7-year-old I ever met,” Thompson said. “Athena loved to dance and created her own dance moves … There will never be a day that goes by we don’t think of her.”
Thompson had her class write letters to Strand’s family, some of which she read out loud.
“You used to play with us,” one letter read. “I feel sad. We loved to play tag. I love you.”
Another letter read, “Please don’t worry. She’s not dead. She’s in heaven. She’s in a safe place.”