Show of Love: Candlelight vigil honors Niles residents killed in crash
Gabriel Hernandez wrapped his arms tightly around friends and family, holding them in a tight embrace as his face showed he fought back the indescribable emotions of losing a sister. All around him that scene was mirrored in small groups huddled together for warmth.
Several hundred people braved the bitter cold, strong winds and light snow Sunday evening for a candlelight vigil intended to pay respect to Steven Rough and Autumn Mehl, the two Niles residents who were last seen late Friday night before Autumn’s vehicle was found Sunday morning in a creek off the St. Joseph River near the intersection of Bond and Beeson roads in Niles Township.
Fighting a losing battle against the wind, the white sandwich bags filled with sand and tea candles formed two large circles at the Niles-Buchanan YMCA. People poured in from everywhere, trudging through the snow and packing beneath the vaulted entrance to the building where Autumn worked.
Pastor Jared Eckerley — of the Real Life Church that meets every Sunday at the Y — urged everyone to use their phone apps as make-shift candles, acknowledging they were all there with heavy hearts.
“When you get this many people to show up on Valentine’s night in snowy, cold weather like this, it means something. There is a lot of love in this space right here,” he said before leading a group prayer. “We are here to mourn and celebrate the lives of Autumn and Steven.”
Jeremy Diaz, Steven’s cousin, spoke to the group gathered there, calling his lost loved one “fearless” and sharing some personal stories.
“He had a smile that was wicked and fun. It was a bright smile that could light up a room,” he said. “He was a wonderful person. He wasn’t perfect but none of us are. But we loved him. We loved him very much.”
Calling Autumn a “beautiful mother,” one friend spoke about how dedicated the woman was to her family and her community.
“She loved her job. She loved her kids,” the woman said. “We loved her as well.”
Denise Peters, vice-president of programs at the YMCA, said she and Autumn’s co-workers decided having a vigil was important despite the weather and the fact the emotions were still so raw.
“We thought it would be a good idea to help our team. There is so much community here. We love our people,” Peters said. “The turnout was overwhelming. They kept coming and coming just to show their love. It really represents something about our community and the treasure of people. In our fast-paced world we sometimes forget about people and how important they are to us.”