In Camden, a remembrance: 55 candles for 55 dead

Candles represent victims at the Vigil for Peace at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Camden. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
Candles represent victims at the Vigil for Peace at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Camden. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
Posted: December 31, 2013

Lionel Ahing had always thought his brother died alone, left to bleed to death by the man who stabbed him on Jan. 13 and made off with the $4 in his pocket. But on Sunday - as William Ahing was remembered as the first of 55 people to die from violence this year in Camden - Lionel Ahing learned the rest of the story.

His brother had been held by strangers who rushed to his side.

"At least I know my brother was looking at people, and he wasn't alone when he passed away," Lionel Ahing said. "Words can't describe how much closure this morning brings."

That solace came at 6 a.m. Sunday at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception as the 48-hour Vigil for Peace began. By 2 p.m., a thick layer of hot wax had pooled in Ahing's glass candleholder and the ninth red pillar - for victim Antonio Barge, who was shot to death Feb. 28 - sat in front of the altar.

At 5 p.m. Tuesday, the last of the 55 candles will be lit.

One for the youngest victim, 16-year-old Alexander Salgado, who died Nov. 19. One for the oldest, 64-year-old Dennis Black, who died Dec. 23. One for Maylin Colon, a young mother who was shot Aug. 19.

All but four of the 55 victims died from gunshot wounds.

"Shot to death. Shot to death. Shot to death," said Sister Helen Cole, running through the list in her mind, a list she's been keeping since she started the vigil in 1995. "Not just shot. But shot to death. I think about all the people that are carrying guns. I think about what happened to punching someone?"

Some hours of the vigil pass with family and friends packed into the front pews, holding pictures, praying, and sharing memories. On Sunday, the rain that filled the cathedral with the muffled hum of cars passing in the streets seemed to keep some family and friends from attending. Those hours were observed more quietly, with Cole and a few others recognizing someone they didn't know but whom they mourned nonetheless.

"Help us make choices that will make Camden a safer place to live," Cole said while remembering Barge.

She's been saying that prayer for 18 years, since a 13-year-old girl who lived near her office, Shaline Seguinot, was raped and murdered.

"We were like, 'What can we do? What can we do to stop this violence?' And in the end, we decided just to pray. Because we felt helpless," she said. "I still feel helpless."

That first year, there were 60 victims remembered at the vigil. That record was broken last year, when there were 68. Cole remembers holding only one 24-hour vigil for just 24 victims, which she said was still far above the 10 homicides that crime statistics suggest Camden should have annually.

Looking at the candles and name cards Sunday, Cole knew from memory the way many of them died - what street corner it was near, who was around, whether she'd met the families. She's less quick to recall their attackers.

"I usually don't follow the killers," she said.

She said catching an alleged attacker, which happened in Ahing's case, does bring solace for the family. Lionel Ahing said a man was taken into custody within 24 hours of his brother's killing and was awaiting trial.

Elizabeth Echevarria hasn't received that closure. Last year, her son Nicholas Castellar was among the dead. She returned to the church Sunday - on what would have been Castellar's 21st birthday - and longed for an arrest.

"Look at all these candles. Why? Why do we have to live like this?" she asked, a photo of her son illuminated on her cellphone. "It feels like the West here in Camden. Everybody has a gun. Everybody's shooting."

Castellar and 18-year-old Shavor Dotson, a friend, were shot on April 11, 2012, in a vacant lot near Sixth and Larch Streets. The two had nowhere to hide, no cars to duck behind or alleys to run into. Rumors that circulated in the aftermath haven't led to an arrest, and the fact that her son's killer might have enjoyed a holiday with his family now fills Echevarria with rage.

"They were people and they deserve to be remembered," she said, looking at the flickering candlelight. "Like my son."

Cole remembers them all. And this year, she also remembers her neighbor Jaime Molina, who was shot to death around 2 p.m. Oct. 30, just blocks from a school. On Sunday, she recalled him as a man who struggled with drug addiction but who was kind and gentle, cleaning up trash when it gathered in front of her door and calling her madre, Spanish for mother.

"I saw him every day for two years," Cole said.

She paused and placed her hand near the candle that will be lit for Molina at 1 p.m. Tuesday – the 44th of 55.

"I miss him."


tnadolny@philly.com

267-746-0207 @tricianadolny

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