FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School promgoers walked into an enchanted forest Saturday night.
The main ballroom at the Westin Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort was decorated with “trees” and green thickets. Actors disguised as forest creatures, wood nymphs and deer scampered about as the 850 students stepped away for one night from the horrific event that rocked their young lives.
Each table had a floral centerpiece more than 4 feet tall. Butterflies were released from the rooftop.
But murdered friends, staff and classmates were still front and center, with a prominently placed memorial to them. A man-size ice sculpture stood in the hallway, proclaiming, “MSDSTRONG.” There was a room set aside for quiet reflection.
The Parkland school suffered one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history on Feb. 14 when Nikolas Cruz opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle, killing 17 and wounding 17 others.
With her hair done up in ringlets and professionally applied makeup, Nicole Barreto, 17, was ready Saturday afternoon to walk into her first formal dance.
“I’m trying to have a good time,” said Barreto, who will start at the University of Florida in the fall with plans to become a doctor. “I just want to make sure I have a good time with all my friends.”
There was some thought given to canceling some of the traditional end-of-school-year celebrations like prom, in light of the shootings. But Stoneman Douglas seniors decided to celebrate.
Donations poured in from businesses to make the prom unforgettable. The hotel, the DJ, the florist, the decorator and all the other prom vendors offered to work for free or at cost. It reduced each ticket price by nearly $100, compared with last year’s event.
Daniel Estevez, the resort’s general manager, said his staff worked with the prom committee, trying to balance acknowledging the horrific event and giving them a night to remember.
“We are proud to be a part of it,” he said.
Deputies from the Broward County Sheriff’s Office stood at the front entrance, the only way revelers were allowed in.
“The senior class is going to be missing some of its members — we don’t forget that, none of us,” said senior Rebecca Schneid, who wore a black gown.
Barreto tried on 10 dresses before she settled on a gold sparking tulle gown. A party bus with 39 others whisked her to the prom. But it was impossible for her to forget that she was in the same Advanced Placement English literature class as Carmen Schentrup, also a senior, before she was killed.
“Everyone’s going to feel it,” Barreto said.
The other three slain senior classmates were Meadow Pollack, Nicholas Dworet and Joaquin Oliver.
After putting on a fresh coat of lipstick, she reflected on how it’s been to have some of her classmates become instantly recognizable figures, with millions of Twitter followers and appearances on worldwide airwaves.
“I think it’s cool,” she said. “They got out there and spoke about what they are passionate about.”
Cards from the funeral she went to and “NeverAgain” wristbands joined her pressed prom corsage of roses in a memory box she keeps.
“I keep it close to my heart,” she said.