COLUMBIA, Md. - Timothy Gehrke met Brianna Benlolo about a year ago at The Mall in Columbia where they both worked.
"She came into a store that I was working at and we became friends right off the bat," Gehrke said. "She was extremely bubbly and nice and very carefree. She would talk to anyone. That's why we became friends."
Thursday marked the first time Gehrke had gone back to the mall since three people were killed inside the Zumiez store on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014. A crowd of hundreds gathered outside of the carousel entrance to the Columbia mall for a candlelight vigil and a moment of silence for Benlolo, 21, and Tyler Johnson, 25.
"To see everyone here, I think it's fantastic that so many people care and that want to make a difference, that the mall wants to make a difference," Gehrke said. "I think it's really inspirational."
Faith leaders guided the crowd in prayer. Patric Centorbi, a friend of Benlolo's said a few brief words about the mother of a 2-year-old boy.
"I just wanted to make sure everyone remembers how sweet and how amazing of a person she was," he said.
Joan Webb Scornaienchi, executive director of HC DrugFree, spoke on behalf of Johnson's father, who buried his son Thursday morning.
"At the funeral today, his father said that over the next few weeks, and next few months, that if we all watch and just take the time to see it, that we will see God's hand at work in this community. So please look for that," Scornaienchi said.
Scornaienchi knew Johnson from his work on the board of the Serenity Center, a 12-step program in Columbia. Johnson had been clean and sober for two years when he was gunned down by Darion Aguilar, a troubled 19-year-old from College Park.
"If you only knew the beginning of Tyler's story, you only knew about the life of to the part of the addiction," Scornaienchi said. "But if you knew the rest of the story, then you knew the best of the story—his life after that. His life of love, and hope, and recovery and healing."
She said Johnson was known for his big hugs, which she began calling the "Tyler Hug" this week.
"He made you feel like you mattered, like you were important. When he hugged [you], it stopped you in your tracks," she said. "Please hug each other with a ‘Tyler Hug' this week."
The crowd then lit their candles, passed out by mall representatives. Kristina Johnson, an employee at one the stores in the mall (no relation to Tyler), describe it as a tight-knit community. She huddled together with Gehrke at the conclusion of the vigil.
"Everyone supports each other," she said.
On the day of the shooting, Gehrke was pinned down in Fossil, the store where he works in the mall.
"I didn't know what was happening at the time," Gehrke said. "We didn't know if it was 10 shooters or one shooter. Horrifying."
He said he quickly called friends and fellow mall employees to warm them to stay out of Columbia. He kept checking his phone for updates on the location of the shooting in the mall.
"All I wanted to know was to make sure she was OK but I couldn't because I couldn't leave the store," he said.
"She was an extremely kind person and it's very unfortunate that something like this happens to good people."
This story has been updated from its original version to include comments from people who spoke and attended the vigil.