TUCSON, Ariz. – Some 2,000 mourners packed a Catholic church to honor Christina Taylor Green, the bubbly 9-year-old who was the youngest victim of the Arizona shootings, while hundreds more lined streets outside in a show of unity and support.
Christina's was the first of half-a-dozen funerals in the coming days, and was to be followed Friday with a service for U.S. District Judge John Roll at the same church, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. Security was expected to be tight at the ceremony, with many federal judges among the mourners.
Roll and Christina were among six people killed Saturday when a gunman opened fire on a meet-and-greet for Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in a Tucson supermarket parking lot. Thirteen others were wounded, including Giffords, who was shot in the head and gravely injured.
Roll, who served nearly 40 years, had stopped by the event after attending Mass to say hello to the congresswoman.
On Thursday, though, the focus was on Christina as the mourners said goodbye to the joyful, patriotic and athletic girl whose life began on Sept. 11, 2001, and ended on what has become another day of national tragedy.
Eight-year-old Dante Williams had only one thing on his mind: he wanted to leave a giant teddy bear, Brownie, for his slain friend.
The third-grader who attended school with the dark-haired girl recalled chasing her at recess and having dance contests with her in the schoolyard — mostly break-dancing, he said. He bought the stuffed animal, a toy nearly as tall as himself, to leave by Christina's casket because she loved animals, but there was no room.
Instead, his mother said he would take it to school and leave it at a growing memorial there.
"This was kind of a closure for him. He was in the car coming here saying he was feeling sad about it," said Leshan Mitchell, as she and her son left the service. "He said, 'Mom, I'm feeling really sad now' and I said, 'People who didn't know her are feeling sad, too, and it's OK to cry and it's OK to be angry."
Outside the church, mourners lined both sides of the street outside for more than a quarter-mile to show their support. Hundreds of motorcycle riders from all over stood guard. More than a dozen residents were dressed as angels and some mourners dressed in white placed candles alongside the road leading to the church.
As Christina's family grieved, new developments emerged in the case when a man walking his dog found a black bag containing ammunition that authorities believe was discarded by the suspected gunman, 22-year-old Jared Loughner.
Before the service, Christina's family and closest friends gathered under the enormous the American flag recovered from Ground Zero and paused for a moment of silence, holding hands and crying. White-gloved state troopers escorted family and dignitaries into the church as a choir sang hymns.
"She would want to say to us today, 'Enjoy life,'" said Bishop Gerald Kicanas, who presided over the funeral. "She would want to say to us today, 'God has loved me so much. He has put his hand on me and prepared a place for me.'"
"Her time to be born was Sept. 11, 2001," he said. "Her time to die was the tragic day, Jan. 8, 2011, just nine years old she was. But she has found her dwelling place in God's mansion. She went home."
Kicanas shared memories of the little girl who was an avid swimmer and dancer, a budding politician and the only female on her Little League team. Mounds of flowers — pink roses and wreaths — surrounded the closed casket and a large photo of Christina and her older brother, 11-year-old Dallas, stood at the entrance to the church.
Her father, John Green, recalled in an emotional eulogy how his daughter used to pick blueberries, loved snorkeling and played for hours with her cousins and brother behind the house, directing the activities.
He recalled how once, upon returning from a two-week trip, he found his daughter and his wife dancing in the hallway, full of life and happiness.
"Christina Taylor Green, I can't tell you how much we all miss you," her father said. "I think you have affected the whole country."
Angie Yrigoyen, who knew Christina through her 11-year-old grandson Dominic, was still emotional as she left the church and said the funeral captured the little girl's spirit in a way that moved her profoundly.
"She was like a grown-up in a child's body," said Yrigoyen, 77, as she broke into tears. "I saw her as a very happy child. I hope the one thing that she brings to our city, our state and country is peace."