Wednesday, June 29, 2016

10 Minutes of Waiting to Die

A Sierra Club coworker and I were in our back conference room of our third floor suite when we started to smell smoke. I looked out of the door and saw our other coworkers in the suite rushing away into the side offices.

"What's happening?"

"Active shooter!"

A loud pang reverberated down the hall. Screams. Along one wall of our suite are three offices, and a co-worker waved us to the furthest one. As we rushed back we saw three of our Sierra Club coworkers huddled under a desk in the middle. Another shot. We dove under the far desk in the glass-walled office. Our front door to the suite was glass-- was it locked? Would it matter?

We could hear scuffling upstairs, downstairs, muffled shouts. I have thought about this moment before. I dealt with the aftermath being in a community under siege at Virginia Tech, losing two acquaintances in that mass shooting and gaining an eye for exits in crisis. 

I only had a few panic attacks in classes after that, imaging if a gunman came in what I would do, before I learned to control my anxiety and accept it'll happen when it happens. I decided after one point I would make sure my last message was a message of love to all, a last act to stand up the senseless violence if there was nothing else to do. This in mind, I opened Facebook on my phone and updated my status:

2:44 - "Active shooter. Love you all."

Another shot, sounding closer. I wasn't sure if it was our floor or not. I tried not to imagine my co-workers--my friends -- being murdered dozens of feet away, the murderer with whatever grudge stepping closer to our office.

Oh god, Katie. My partner. She's on the first floor.

I texted her:

2:45 - I love you.

2:46 - I'm safe. Where are you?

2:47 - Under desk

I was relieved to know she was safe. I was calmed to know I got my message out. I just had to wait. I didn't want to die, but I would be at peace if I did.

I shook, PTSD from Virginia Tech, raw adrenaline of the moment. An uncontrollable surge of hormones. What could we do? We had to stay hidden. How can I protect my co-workers? I didn't want to see them murdered before me. Here I am cowering under a desk. Just waiting to see the legs of the assailant appear and then to be helplessly mowed down.

I could hear sirens outside. It was a race against time. Who would get to us first? My coworker next to me started to write a note to her mom. My phone buzzed with a text from Katie, I held my breath and turned off the vibrate with paralyzing fear of making too much noise.

2:51 - SWAT is entering the building now

I recalled when I was a senior in high school when a stabbing occurred. We were put into lockdown, our CAD teacher casually putting paper over the windowed door as we played games on the computers. 20 minutes later a SWAT team escorted us to the library, and when we were finally released we saw dozens of police cruisers and several news helicopters buzzing around. Officers with shotguns were standing every 20 feet along the sidewalk.

We just had to wait for the SWAT team. I know how this works. I whispered SWAT was entering the building to my fellow under-the-desk partners.

More commotion just above us, rapid steps. I ask Katie:

2:51 - Are you out? Sounds like 4tg floor

2:52 - yes. I'm safe outside

2:52 - I love you

Minutes go by. I periodically check Facebook because I have nothing else to do but wait.

"It's going to be ok" my coworker said, noticing my shaking. I breathed several breaths to calm myself.

Finally, there was a knock on the suite door. My heart stopped in the several prolonged moments of silence after.

Then a shout: "Police!" But I paused, it was one voice. What if it was the shooter? Then a second voice shouted: "Police! Put your hands up!"

I stepped out to see a half dozen SWAT officers in full tactical gear. "Stand up with your hands up!" I glanced at my three coworkers in the next office, working to get up-- one who has been recovering from a broken ankle. They had unplugged everything to the desk and were ready to flip it for when the shooter came in.

"Come this way!"

I followed, hesitant for my coworkers still collecting themselves, but listened to the police' commands. An officer was stationed at every corner of the hall and stairs, fingers near the triggers on their shotguns and rifles. Keeping our hands up, they guided us out of the building.

The street was surprisingly empty, a police cruiser or two, an ambulance. Then I realized the hoards of police were at the ends of the block for staging in case shots would be fired to the street. Even the EMT personnel had bulletproof vests.

Our group was split by the police, the majority being rounded up into an adjacent building where the others were put on a city bus. There the police took in over a hundred statements of what we saw and heard. An officer said that three were shot, including the shooter who was dead. Several folks mentioned smelling the smoke first, then a barista from the cafe sheepishly admitted she burnt toast. One mystery solved.

Once the statements were collected we were escorted to the police line and were let loose. We were warned about the media, and that we could speak to them but it was our decision. The horrid aftermath of the media was like a second attack at Virginia Tech, I wasn't eager to engage with them again.

A reporter from a radio station came up and asked what we saw. I knew the information the police officer shared may not have been up to date and so I bit my lip, instead mentioning in shock I was a freshman when Virginia Tech happened.  The reporter looked at me and said he was there, too. I doubted him, but to his credit he said he didn't want to bother me and didn't push it. I walked away with my coworker emphasizing now isn't the time to the reporter.

We ended up a block away in a hotel lobby, where they eventually gave us some free food. A couple dozen colleagues from the building, representing several organizations, came through and reflected on the experience. It was clear based on the tones of the way people spoke those who heard the shots versus those who didn't. A coping mechanism is to make jokes, and some of the ones I heard were very insensitive. But I understood they didn't experience what we just did, as was often the case at Virginia Tech as well as we engaged with the outside world. I truly thought we could have been killed at any moment during those ten minutes.

Katie showed up, just released from the city bus after providing testimony, and we embraced.  Together with the crowd we made calls and emails, sharing intel as we searched for who the victims were and letting friends and family know we were safe. We kept an eye on the silent TVs streaming news updates. One by one everyone we knew or could think of were confirmed safe.  When I got home, pent up with all sorts of emotions, I felt like I had to livestream my thoughts.

It soon became clear it was a domestic violence incident-- murder. A man shot a woman before killing himself-- two, not three shot. The woman struggled to live but passed away overnight. Her name was Cara Russell, a former mayor of Buena Vista, Executive Director of Colorado Recycling Association - a new tenant not yet announced to our community. May she rest in peace, may her family and friends have the support they need, and may our community grow stronger and more resilient in this darkened world.

Just a couple days earlier this week, I found myself at Columbine High School for the first time. The event that happened there in 1999 was such a defining moment of the millennium generation, the beginning of this current era of chaos. After some wandering I found the memorial and took my time reading the quotes on it, reflecting on the community, on the lives lost. I reflected on the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, seeing the terror unfold on our campus and the horrific loss we were dealt as a community.

My own words then were quoted around the world from my blog in one of the first waves of modern citizen journalism-- "Just like that... we topped Columbine." Now nine years later Orlando carries the torch of horror as thousands upon thousands die from gun violence every year in this country.

I've been depressed and felt lost in recent weeks with the terror in the world. It's what led me to go to Columbine to reflect. I see friends on Facebook defending their right to their semi-automatic weapons- AR-15s or otherwise-- and I just think how have we gotten here?

How have we gotten to a point of no return where MAD- Mutually Assured Destruction- of the 50s/60s has seized the day to dislodge trust of our common man and instead lead to an arms race against each other? How have we abandoned our neighbors in an individualistic and hedonistic way to claim anyone who can't find a stable life and wage is a failure to be abandoned? We're in nothing short of class warfare, demonizing the poor and those with misfortune and turning our backs on our own democracy. We've eliminated the ceiling and the floor, so when people fall they can't get back up and when they rise they take all. All the while the gun lobby makes it rich, because don't trust that guy-- especially if he's Muslim! All of this undermines mental health, eroding sanity at an ever-increasing pace.

I've had enough of this routine. At any moment the next shooting can happen, and I know now what being close to those shots are like. Enough is enough. I'm not going to wait to be a dead martyr with a Facebook post anymore. I'm going to speak out and act. Call your representative. March the streets. Talk to your friends. Something has to change, and we have to act to make it happen.

After my Facebook video folks started posting this hashtag, so re-Tweet away: #NoMoreRoutine