Hearts are broken in the small town of Big Sandy, Tennessee. The rural community is mourning the loss of Sonny Melton. One of their own, he was the first named victim in the Las Vegas massacre, fatally wounded while protecting his wife Heather, who survived. Residents gathered around a gazebo in the town center Monday night to pray for Sonny's family and other victims and to set an example for how communities should respond to tragedy.
Tiffany Boullion says when she learned Sonny Melton had been killed she felt total devastation. "I've known him my whole life. Sonny grew up here. He was from here and his whole family is," she said. She helped organize the vigil. "God just really laid it heavy on my heart to get everybody together."
Ron Lane is the mayor of the town of little more than 500 people, where a gas station turned diner once owned by Sonny's grandfather greets you as you drive in, where the city hall, post office, cafe and library are all within a short walk.
He said, "We feel like it's a special place and it's a small community, it's a community where everybody knows everybody. I've lived here all of my life. I'm 76 and I grew up here."
Things like this aren't supposed to happen to someone from a small town, he said, "But it's a different world now. This right here brings home the fact that you don't have to live in a big city for it to affect you. It can happen to any of us anytime."
Dale Morgan has been in disbelief since finding out about Sonny and Heather. He said they're both personable and caring people, well-respected in Big Sandy. "And I call them by their first name because, you know they're my neighbor. It's just really sad that something like this happened. Just go and have fun at a concert."
During the vigil, Sonny's friends gathered in the back. One said he's known Sonny since he was four. He said he was the kind of guy you could call at two o'clock in the morning and would be there to help. "We've known Sonny our whole life and he never let anybody down. He would never tell anybody no. It didn't matter what the circumstance he was there. And he was there smiling and he was happy and he'd do anything for any of us. And for him to be taken from us. It's not right."
He said saving Heather's life shows you what kind of person he truly was. Heather told USA Today that he protected her after he'd been shot.
Bryant Allen towered over most of the residents and gripped my hand tight during the prayer.
"Everybody loved him. When you'd see him, he'd smile. He was always good to everybody. His name fit him. His disposition was always Sonny. Once you've seen him, you'd walk away from him feeling better. He was just one of those people," Allen said.
"I ask all of y'all tonight before we leave here: hug each other. Tell each other you care about each other because we just don't ever know when that chance could be over," he said.
Brother Daryl Lewis of Big Sandy First Baptist Church had everyone tighten up, to look around and see a community that knows what it means to hurt together and to know what it means to love a neighbor.
"And I just ask in the days to come that we continue this bond. This strength. This community that we have. That we show to the world this is how you respond to the face of tragedy. That this is how you retaliate amongst destruction," Lewis said.
Lewis described another Tennessee man, Jason McMillan, wounded in the attack and local efforts to raise money for his family. Lewis said Big Sandy is an opportunity to show the nation what happens when tragedies reach small towns: coming together in prayer for peace and comfort.