Help! I’m Having A Flashback
by Beth Kozan
Dateline: 2-15-2018. I can’t quiet my mind. All the television channels are playing and replaying yesterday’s coverage of a school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Seeing the students leave their classrooms, drop their backpacks in a heap, and walk single file to a safer place makes me remember . . .
I am reliving the shooting at Catholic Social Service more than 20 years ago, step by step. It wasn’t until the 10 o’clock local news that night in 1997 – seeing the yellow paper designations of each ammunition shell on the stairs we climbed multiple times every day – that the seriousness of our experience hit me.
It was a Thursday in mid-April. Carol, Sheryl, and I were the only ones there in the Pregnancy, Parenting, and Adoptions Unit, on the second floor. We took our lunches to Connie’s office (the only office in our program with a table). As we prepared to eat, we heard a single loud noise on the street. Carol and I thought it was a car backfiring, but Sheryl insisted it was a gunshot.
A few minutes later, we heard a shot fired inside our building! We turned the table on its side to barricade the door, then hid behind Connie’s desk, near the window. From the floor, Carol reached up and pulled the phone down and called 911; they had already received the report. Then she called her husband at work; he had heard the news on the radio and was worried. We heard a helicopter close above us. Two male voices in a foreign language argued, and then shots began ringing out – many of them! Then silence. After a bit, a policeman announced his presence at our door and told us to stay in place and wait for an All Clear signal.
That day, Elliot had dropped me off at work in the morning and used my car to run an errand. Per our plan, he returned to the office at noon to have me drive him home. As he parked on the west side of the building, he watched a man enter the building carrying an assault rifle. He thought: “He must be going in to try to sell the rifle to someone.” (Elliot would later kick himself for not recognizing the danger.)
Elliot entered the front door and saw the man with the gun at the receptionist’s window. The gunman pivoted, aimed the weapon at Elliot, and said: “You have to go now!” Elliot put his hands up and backed out the door; the interruption gave the receptionist a chance to seek help from the agency director. Elliot crossed through traffic on Northern Avenue into a pizza place and told them to call 911 – a man with a gun was inside Catholic Social Service!
Then Elliot ran back across Northern to the parking lot on the east side of the CSS building so he could further observe the man with the gun who went around that corner of the building. As he crossed the street, he saw the mass of workers exiting the building through the west door, near where he’d parked the car.
Elliot knew about the girls’ home, Casa Linda Lodge, behind the agency and he wanted to be able to tell the police where the gunman was. He’d heard the gunman shoot out the window to gain entrance to the main building, then watched as two policemen drove up in a patrol car and entered the building, guns drawn. He heard the multiple shots fired inside the building.
When the gunfire ceased, Elliot entered the CSS building through the shot-out window beside the back door. He walked up the stairs through the pall of gun smoke that hung over the stairs. He went to my office, saw my purse there, and assumed I was in the group he’d seen leaving the building through the west entrance. He returned the way he had come in and went to the front of the building. As he walked under the portico, Sheryl saw him, and called out: “Elliot, what are you doing here?”
For our part, as soon as the shooting stopped, we opened the windows. Sheryl called out to the police who were stringing yellow Crime Scene tape across the bushes in front of the building, “Did anybody get shot?” The reply came: “Just the bad guy.” We watched as the injured man was loaded into the ambulance on a gurney and whisked away.
We cautiously opened the door where we waited and saw a policeman in the hallway working his way to each closed office door on the second floor. We were told to go to the back building (Casa Linda Lodge) where we would be interviewed. On the way past my office, I grabbed my purse and we walked through the pungent haze of gun smoke still on the stairs, and joined the people assembling at Casa Linda. Elliot was there.
It took until 5 p.m. for everyone to be interviewed; no one could leave until everyone had given their statement. We were told to go home; no one was allowed to reenter the main building. The office would be closed the following day, and we were all invited to meet at the Phoenix Diocese office the next day. A memorial service would be held for Simon, the shooter, who we learned had died at nearby John C Lincoln hospital, and counselors would be onsite.
As I recall, most employees were stoic with shock, and they expressed very little emotion – until they learned they couldn’t re-enter the building to get their car keys! There were no exceptions, and several people had to call relatives or friends to come pick them up.
The next day at the Diocese office, we sat quietly in the chapel for a small service asking rest for the shooter’s soul. We learned that he was from Sudan, had once been a client of the Catholic Social Service refugee program, and he left the program with bad feelings. Simon came to the CSS office armed because it was taking too long for a visa to come through for his friend in Africa, and he wanted to see the workers he knew. We learned that the arguing voices we had heard were those of Simon and a worker from the refugee program.
Counselors from the Fire Department split us into three groups: (1) people who knew Simon through their work with the refugee program; (2) those who were in the building at the time of the incident; and (3) those who were not in the building and were not allowed to enter the building when they heard about it on the news.
There were about 20 in our group of those who were in the building at the time of the shooting. Guided by counselors, each person gave their personal account. The first to speak were those who had been on the first floor and exited the building by the west door. One woman described hearing the shots and fearing each shot meant someone was dead. The most common feeling expressed was helplessness. Some expressed anger, and some people seemed insulted that the shooter was given respect by the service held for him. No judgments were made by the counselors for any of the feelings expressed.
On Monday, when we returned to the office, you almost wouldn’t know any incident had taken place. A new paint job covered bullet pockmarks, even on the file cabinet that had been shot through by a bullet. Blood-stained carpet had been replaced. Most of the shots, we learned from the television coverage, were on the stairs where the police encountered the shooter. “It was the first time I was glad to be short!” the policeman joked on the news tape about the confrontation on the stairs. All evidence of the spray of bullets had been plastered over and painted. It was almost as if nothing had happened there.
Seeing the school shooting replayed again and again on television through the weekend of February 17-18, 2018, brought a flashback. It gives me sympathy for those who’ve experienced trauma and helps me understand Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome in a personal way.
Beth Kozan is the author of the book Adoption: More Than by Chance and the forthcoming Helping the Birth Mother You Know. Beth worked in adoption for 35 years and retired to write. She has many more books than these titles to write and will emphasize and explore the concept of community in her additional books. “Growing up in a close agriculture-based, rural community in Texas, I felt the comfort and bonds of caring for others which is often missing in our busy lives today. Exploring and building communities for today is my writer’s goal.” Follow Beth on Facebook or visit her website, where she reviews books and films featuring adoption.