‘A club no one wants to be a part of’: Shooting victims in one city help those in the next one cope

U.S. Army veteran Diondra Pointer planted flags in the ground after a gunman left four U.S. Marines and a U.S. Navy sailor dead in Chattanooga in 2015.

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“My heart really hurts,” she said then. These were fathers and brothers and sons of somebody. I just wanted to pay my respects."

Four years later, Pointer is a nurse who works the night shift. She runs errands during her 1 a.m. lunch break, the only time she feels safe at big-box stores.

“It has definitely changed the way I shop,” she said this week of Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez’ rampage that killed Lance Cpl. Skip Wells of Marietta and four other servicemen at two military sites. “I am real skeptical about going to the mall.”

In Orlando, Nicki Drumb and her wife, Rachel Gardiner, check for exits whenever they attend events likely to draw a crowd.

"It's my new reality," Drumb said. Omar Mateen opened fire at Pulse nightclub in June 2016, leaving 49 victims dead. Like Abdulazeez, Mateen was killed by law enforcement, but the incident has left lasting emotional scars.

Drumb and Gardiner’s first date was at Pulse 15 years ago. “It’s one of the first places I remember walking into that felt completely safe,” Drumb said. She and Gardiner usually spend relaxing evenings on the back porch, catching up on each other’s day. This week, following the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, the porch felt anything but relaxing.

“Neither one of us said anything,” Drumb said.

Hours after the country's most recent mass shooting, at 1 a.m. Sunday, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley offered weary thanks to mayors who know what it’s like to steer a community through this kind of tragedy.

“I think I’ve had over 70 mayors from across the country reach out. Particularly of help have been Buddy Dyer of Orlando, who had to work with his community through the Pulse nightclub (shooting) and Mayor Bill Peduto of Pittsburgh, obviously with the Tree of Life Synagogue,” she said, referring to the October 2018 shooting for which Robert Gregory Bowers faces about 100 state and federal charges. “Unfortunately, because we have so many of these incidences, there is a bevy of mayors that are able to give great advice and feedback.”

As mass shootings continue to grip communities across the country, an unofficial confederation of survivors has become a helpful network.

“It’s a club no one wants to be a part of,” said Chris Williford, a nurse who was at the 2017 music festival in Las Vegas where gunman Stephen Craig Paddock killed 58 and injured more than 400. She and fellow concertgoer Kody Robertson came to a downtown Dayton vigil on Sunday night to offer their uniquely empathetic support.

“You just really need to lean on people,” Williford said. She wasn’t among the shooting victims, but was banged up and bloodied during the stampede for the exits after shots rang out that night on the Vegas Strip. Her medical training kicked in that night. She whipped off her belt to use as a tourniquet on one victim’s bleeding leg, and kept pressure on another’s wounded stomach.

“When the crowd started moving. he started picking people off,” she said of Paddock, who shot himself as authorities closed in. Only later did the trauma and survivor’s guilt hit her. Events like the shooting close to home trigger profound new waves of anxiety.

“I woke up screaming for help two nights ago,” she said. “I take medicine to help me sleep. I don’t think any medicine could have helped in the last two days.”

The first mass shooting I covered for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was here, in July 1999. Failed day trader Mark Barton killed his wife and two children, then nine people where he worked, before shooting himself. This was two months after a Conyers high school shooting left six students wounded and about three months after the Columbine High School shootings that left 13 victims dead; teen gunmen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot themselves.

In recent years, the AJC has sent me to cover mass shootings again and again. I just returned from Dayton.

The tragedies are similar yet unique, all terrible in newly terrible ways. Each time I have been dispatched to a city convulsing in grief, it has been wrenching to talk with those mourning loved ones but heartening to witness communities come together.

The moniker “(Our Town) Strong” has become a grimly familiar hashtag. People used to say “never again,” too. I’ve noticed they don’t anymore.

“What’s changed? Absolutely nothing. That’s the maddening pain of it,” said Father Joshua Whitfield, pastoral administrator for St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas, Texas. He happened to be on the phone with a friend on the Dallas police force in July 2016 when a blizzard of news alerts started coming in. “Both of us didn’t know how serious this was.”

Gunman Micah Xavier Johnson had opened fire in downtown Dallas, leaving five officers dead. Johnson was killed by law enforcement.

“We have a Dallas police officer at every Mass now. We didn’t five years ago,” Whitfield said. “People need to feel safe.”

He laments having to fortify the building.

“When you make the faith space a fortress, something happens to the faith,” he said. “We have to be a community that lives and loves and prays together.”

About nine hours from Dallas, the border town of El Paso is coping with the hurt of a mass shooting that left 22 dead. Suspect Patrick Wood Crusius has been charged with capital murder and faces the death penalty.

Whitfield was on vacation with his family this week. An open-air concert at the beach had him on alert, just another in a litany of small changes to life since the downtown Dallas shootings.

“It taints every experience,” he said. “It’s the creep, the cancer of fear and suspicion. What does it make us? What does it turn us into? We’re not very free.”

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