A celebration of life was held Friday for Cory Mills, Eric Blackmore and Anthony (A.J.) Jensen, the three young men whose lives were cut short on Jan. 31 after the truck they were travelling was swept into the Sooke River.
More than 1,000 friends, family, and Sooke residents arrived early at Edward Milne Community School for the ceremony, filling the parking lot an hour before the doors were scheduled to open.
Once the ceremony began, the school theatre was overflowing with people. The overflow crowd was sent to the school gym where a large screen TV was set up to allow for a live streaming of the event.
“I think that everyone in Sooke who could be here is here,” Mayor Maja Tait said.
“If they aren’t here physically, they are certainly here in spirit. The entire community is grieving.”
That grief was evident when the families of the young men took to the stage in turn to speak about each of their loved ones.
Eric Blackmore’s father, William McInnes, and his mother, Shannon Green McInnes, spoke through tears about Eric, about his loves and enthusiasm, and how he had made the life of everyone around him much richer.
Cory Mills was remembered as a young man with a love of the outdoors and a “goofy personality” that made him special to everyone he knew.
A.J. Jensen had a passion for food and lacrosse and was remembered as someone who loved to laugh and to be laughed at.
Carol Rittaler, girlfriend to Jensen’s father, said the three young men brought out the best in the community.
“I really believe that they’re going to be remembered, in part, for the way that they brought the entire community together when they disappeared,” Rittaler said.
“This event will help to provide some closure and help the community to move on as well.”
The ceremony saw T’Souke First Nation Chief Gordon Planes and Elder Shirley Alphonse give a traditional blessing for the men.
Planes spoke about the deep loss to the community, but observed that while he was talking, a “great rainbow” had appeared in the sky above the school.
“In our tradition, that shows that they are here with us today … watching us,” Planes said.
Jesse Roper, a well-known musician with deep roots in the community, made his way back to Sooke from out of province appearances to play at the celebration of life.
Juan de Fuca Electoral Area director Mike Hicks knew the young men well, and served as MC for the celebration of life.
“The importance of this event is that it gives everyone a chance to learn about the boys, shed some tears, and support the families,” Hicks said.