Pensacola is known as a welcoming community. Now they’re trying to cope with feelings of betrayal and grief


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PENSACOLA, Fl. — Days after a deadly shooting that took the lives of three young navy sailors and injured eight others at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida, community members are mourning and waiting for answers.

The gunman was a second lieutenant in the Saudi military involved in flight training at the Pensacola base, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said. The motive remains unknown, the but FBI is working under the “presumption that this was an act of terrorism,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Rachel Rojas said.

Because the base is the center of the community, with the town developing around the air station, the shooting has had a profound impact on the entire town, Salma Ashmawi, Islamic Center of Northwest Florida community organizer and spokeswoman, told CNN.

“It hit everybody, it hit all of us,” Ashmawi explained. “Really it was such a shock for everyone, and we were very saddened and everyone was very tense waiting for results wanting to … everyone praying together, it shook everyone in Pensacola.”

Ashmawi said she and others in the community were shocked to hear about the shooting and the shooter. “I have yet to meet a radical person in Pensacola. It’s a very rare occurrence anywhere, but here people know each other almost everybody knows each other because it is still a small town,” Ashmawi said.

She says that the community has always welcomed those from different faiths and different countries including students from the base.

That welcoming nature is something Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan says he’s proud of. Speaking at a press conference Sunday night, he expressed his deep sense of hurt and betrayal after the shooting in a community that provides sponsorships and cultural exchange programs to make those training feel more at home.

“It will be a very long time before this community gets over this, military and civilian, because we are an open, giving, loving people and that has been betrayed,” the sheriff said.

Morgan told reporters that he is a retired Air Force officer that has trained with many different people during his time in the service.

He said that the community around Pensacola has been extremely welcoming of the allied officers. “We opened our country to the allied officers. We opened our hearts,” Morgan explained.

“Many folks that surround our military base … they do sponsorships where they sponsor officers into their homes to do a cultural exchange,” Morgan said. He said he was unaware if the shooting suspect had participated in any of those sponsorships.

The sheriff says the response from his community has been, “How could this happen here?”

That response was echoed by Pensacola resident Kristy Clark Saturday as she and her daughters laid a wreath in honor of those killed in the shooting.

“It’s just sad it hit here because like everybody says you never expect it to hit home,” Clark said choking back sobs and wiping away tears. “We have so much here so much to offer … It’s just a nice place it’s home.”

As she hugged her daughters and cried, she said she knew the community would do anything to help the families of the victims. “Our prayers and thoughts go out to them. If there is anything that we could offer to do as a community, you know, we’re here for them we’re thinking and praying for them.”

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