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Nov. 3—LEWISTON — President Biden met with the families of those killed in last week's mass shootings during a somber visit to the city Friday with first lady Jill Biden, the governor and members of Maine's congressional delegation.
The president also met with and thanked first responders who worked through the rampage that left 18 dead and 13 wounded.
"As we mourn today in Maine, this tragedy opens painful wounds all across the country," Biden said in remarks outside Just-in-Time Recreation, one of two sites where people were slain Oct. 25.
"Too many Americans have lost loved ones or survived the trauma of gun violence. I know because Jill and I have met with them in Buffalo, in Uvalde, in Monterey Park, in Sandy Hook. Too many to count."
The president's visit came a little over a week after the shootings at Just-in-Time and Schemengees Bar & Grille Restaurant and as families have begun to hold funerals for their loved ones.
It was the worst mass killing in the U.S. this year, and the deadliest in Maine history.
"Jill and I are here on behalf of the American people, to grieve with you and to make sure you know you're not alone," the president told those gathered outside the bowling alley. He later met with victims' families at a nearby elementary school.
"Eighteen precious souls stolen, 13 wounded," Biden said. "Children, grandchildren, spouses, siblings, parents ... All of them lived lives of love and service and sacrifice."
The Democratic president did not discuss any specific policy initiatives in his remarks, but in a statement last week called on Republicans to "work with us to pass a bill banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, to enact universal background checks, to require safe storage of guns, and end immunity from liability for gun manufacturers" in the wake of the shootings.
He said Friday the U.S. is in need of "common sense, reasonable, responsible measures to protect our children, our families, our communities."
"Regardless of our politics, this is about protecting our freedom to go to a bowling alley, a restaurant, a school, a church, without being shot and killed," he said.
FIRST STOP AT SCHEMENGEES
The Bidens arrived at Brunswick Executive Airport just before 2:30 p.m. on Air Force One, then took a helicopter to Lewiston.
The president's blocks-long motorcade of black limousines and dark SUVs, accompanied by local and state police vehicles, snaked its way along the city's almost deserted Main Street, past brick commercial and industrial buildings and retail businesses. Residents individually or in small groups stood and watched, some holding up their phones to get pictures of the brief, rare presidential visit.
The president's first stop after arriving at the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport was Schemengees. Just feet from a large sign demanding, "Fix the mental health system," the Bidens hugged owner Kathy Lebel.
They brought a bouquet of flowers to a memorial site outside the bar and bowed their heads at the tribute of pumpkins and yellow chrysanthemums framed by other signs, such as "Lewiston Love Still Lives Here" and a red valentine-shaped heart.
Standing outside the bar and restaurant, Jenny Fogg said that even though she wasn't able to catch a glimpse of Biden as she had hoped, she's glad the president made the trip to Maine. "It feels like we have some support," said Fogg, 29.
Fogg lives less than a half-mile from Schemengees. During the manhunt, she stayed huddled in her apartment, terrified, staring out of her window at the cop cars outside and reading the news, she said. "I felt very unsafe. I didn't leave my house until they found him," she said of gunman Robert Card, who was found dead on Oct. 27.
Fogg loves living in Lewiston and often frequents bars in the area to shoot pool. Now, she doesn't know when she'll feel comfortable going to bars and restaurants again, she said.
"I don't want to be scared. I feel like people who commit acts of terror want you to be scared," she said. "But it's scary times."
Fogg said she blames the mental health system, which she feels failed Card, and weak gun laws that allowed Card to purchase and retain a semi-automatic weapon despite his mental health challenges and threats he made about committing violent acts.
On Lisbon Street, Donna Zahn walked her dog Maggie Friday afternoon, hanging white ribbons on utility poles. "These are in remembrance of those who were killed," said Zahn, 67.
A group of women Zahn is connected with in Lewiston have gathered together over the past few days to cut countless strands of ribbon to tie in places around the city, she said. "I wish I could do more," she said as she undid a twist in one ribbon she just put up.
Zahn didn't personally know any of the victims or survivors of the shooting, but said she feels awful that something so horrible happened in Lewiston, which she has called home for 35 years.
"It shouldn't happen anywhere," she said of mass shootings. "But this is just too close to home."
Zahn said she thinks the shooting is the fault of a failed mental health system. "There's not enough help for people," she said.
A COMMUNITY IN MOURNING
After stopping at the bowling alley, Biden visited with families of victims at Geiger Elementary School, where he spent at least 15 minutes talking with each family.
Kristy Strout, whose husband, Arthur Strout, was killed in the shootings, was there with nearly two dozen family members. "It doesn't change anything, but it helps to know he cared enough to come out and meet the families," Strout said of the president's visit.
She said she hopes the president and Maine's congressional delegation will be motivated to act on gun control after seeing her family's grief.
"I don't want this to ever happen to a family ever again. I don't want a family to ever feel what I have felt," Strout said. "The conversations I've had this week, what I'm going through, what my daughter is going through. Never again."
Auburn City Councilor Leroy Walker, who lost his son, Joe Walker, in the shootings, said Biden was very soft spoken and mostly listened to what the families had to say.
"Everyone seemed pretty calm and settled down," Walker said. He said about 80 people were sitting at a dozen tables. Jill Biden spoke with each family first, followed by the president. The room was quiet, he said, save for some tears from families and young children.
Walker said Biden did not inject politics into the discussion. Instead, he empathized with those who lost loved ones. "Whatever was in his heart seemed to work OK with people," he said. "I'm really glad he came here. I think it did really help, not just us, but the community."
Outside the school, on a street about a half mile away, Butch Baxter, a Lewiston resident of 32 years, said he hadn't witnessed anything like the events of last week before.
"The president coming here, to Lewiston, is symbolic. It's acknowledging the lives lost in this tragedy," he said.
Even though he was not directly related to the victims or their families, the entire neighborhood mourns their loss, Baxter said. "We all came together to offer support of any kind to the victim's families and help them in whatever way we can."
As they waited for Biden's motorcade, other bystanders chimed in and said Biden's visit is significant to the state and sends an important message to its people.
Anne Benkhe, who works as an ed-tech at Geiger Elementary, said that last week's shootings have deeply affected her students. While the state has sent dozens of councilors and therapy dogs to the school, students are still grappling with the realities of the tragedy, she said.
"I had a student say to me that her uncle had died," she said. "When that little girl said 'Mrs. Benkhe, can I talk to you?,' she was crying. They were making thank you cards for her class, the third-graders. They were making thank you cards for the police and for the first responders, and she said 'I just can't make one.' "
Benkhe explained that Geiger Elementary has a "reset room," in which kids can isolate themselves and speak with a school councilor in a safe environment. She said more students have used the reset room in the last week than in the several months prior.
"I can't believe how many we had in that room on that Tuesday," she said. "I've never seen so many kids." "They're scared," Benkhe added. "They're crying for help."
LOCAL OFFICIALS ALSO REMEMBER
The president was joined on his visit by Gov. Janet Mills, Lewiston Mayor Carl Sheline, U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, all of whom also delivered remarks in memory of the victims outside Just-in-Time.
"Lewiston is a magnificent city and our collective strength is far greater than any number of bullets," said Sheline, who said the city has come together in the wake of the tragedy.
The day of the shootings is one that is seared in the memory of Mainers "as a day of horror and grief but also a day of courage and compassion," said Collins.
"To the families of those who lost loved ones, I offer this proverb: Death leaves a heartache that no one can heal," she said. "Love leaves a memory that no one can steal. In their memory, let us continue to support those who lost loved ones, those who are injured, those who are recovering."
King said there is "little we can do or say to ease the pain of a tragedy like this."
"But we have to start by acknowledging it and committing ourselves to the sacred duty of remembering those we have lost," King said. "Today is about remembrance."
U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree said that she and Rep. Jared Golden, who represents Maine's 2nd Congressional District, including Lewiston, were embraced by colleagues from all over the country in the U.S. House this week.
"All of them said they were watching what was going on in Maine every second of the way, and they were there to help us and support us in any way," Pingree said.
She said Maine "feels like a very small town," and that around the state, the shootings shattered people's sense of safety. "We can't let that happen again," Pingree said.
Mills thanked the Bidens for joining the state in mourning and remembering the victims. "Out of this darkness, I believe there is light, I believe there is hope," Mills said. "I see it in the people of Lewiston, a people who are as resilient as they are kind, a people who are as strong as they are compassionate."
Golden, who was not present with the rest of the congressional delegation outside Just-in-Time, released a statement later Friday.
"I appreciate the President's visit to my hometown of Lewiston following last week's tragedy," the statement said. "I know it will mean so much to my constituents and neighbors that he is there on behalf of the entire nation to express deep sorrow and support for the families of the victims, for the wounded, and for all who are suffering the pain of this terrible shooting."
Biden departed Geiger Elementary School around 6:35 p.m. and arrived at the Brunswick airport around 7:25 p.m. The president's original plane sustained a "minor maintenance issue" while landing in Maine, so a different plane was used to transport Biden back to Delaware, according to a White House press pool report.
A subsequent pool report said the president's press secretary directed further questions on the maintenance issue to the U.S. Air Force. The Air Force did not respond to an inquiry late Friday night seeking more details.
The White House announced earlier this week that its Office of Gun Violence Prevention would be working with Maine officials to support the city of Lewiston and those affected by the shootings, including through on-the-ground support and coordination of federal resources.
Card died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, the Office of Chief Medical Examiner said Friday. His body was found by police about 48 hours after the shootings in a trailer in an overflow lot at the Maine Recycling Corp. in Lisbon.
Police have faced criticism for the length of the manhunt and response to warning signs that Card was struggling with his mental health and was potentially dangerous. Card's family had expressed concerns to police in May, and his U.S. Army Reserve unit also asked for a wellness check on him in September after he was hospitalized over the summer for mental health reasons.
Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry told the Press Herald earlier this week that his department is evaluating their response to Card, but he didn't think deputies could have utilized the state's yellow flag law when visiting Card's home in September because the law requires law enforcement to bring a subject in for a medical evaluation before weapons can be seized and police can't get a warrant to take someone into protective custody for a mental health illness.
The state lawmaker who sponsored the yellow flag law, however, said she thinks the law could have been utilized and also questioned why military officials in New York, where Card was hospitalized in July, didn't invoke that state's red flag law to restrict Card's access to weapons.
The president's visit is his second to Maine in the last three months, though it came under very different circumstances Friday. In late July, Biden visited a textile manufacturer in Auburn to tout his administration's economic plans and sign an executive order aimed at boosting incentives for domestic manufacturing.
Press Herald staff writers Grace Benninghoff, Randy Billings, Lana Cohen and Stephen Singer and Morning Sentinel reporters Dylan Tusinski and Sukanya Mitra contributed to this report.