Stories of loss, love and hope: six firsthand accounts from some of America's worst mass shootings
They see the alerts on their phones. They turn on the news. And then, like the rest of us, the survivors of America’s previous mass shootings watch the grim details of the latest attack unfold.
We asked survivors and family members of victims from six previous mass shootings – including some that were, briefly, the deadliest, the worst – what they do after each new incident. How do they make sense of the country’s response to these shootings? What do they want to see change? How do they cope with the intense coverage of the latest incident – and the silence when the news cycle suddenly moves on?
In the 911 tapes, you can hear art teacher Patti Nielson screaming at Austin Eubanks and his friend Corey DePooter in their high school library, to get “under the table, kids!” The juniors had heard a burst of gunshots earlier but had dismissed it as construction noise. As Nielson screamed, the boys ducked down. Two of their classmates entered the library and opened fire. A few minutes after the shooting stopped, Eubanks saw other students running, and he ran, too, through a library filled with smoke, the fire alarm blaring.
Outside, he called his family from a police car. It was only when his father arrived and jumped over a fence to get to him that his state of shock began to fracture. “I said, ‘They killed Corey,’ and I just broke down in his arms.’”
Eubanks had been shot in the hand and the knee. In the hospital, he was given his first pain medication. His physical pain wasn’t so bad, but the opiate medication had a dramatic impact on his emotional suffering. “It was like somebody put a warm blanket” over him, he says.
He was sent home with a 30-day supply of opiate medication. Within months, he was addicted, manipulating doctors to prescribe him more medication, eventually buying online and on the street, moving on to cocaine and ecstasy and whatever else he could find. His parents saw his behavior changes early, but, knowing little about the signs of addiction, attributed them to the trauma he had been through. It took him 12 years, after racking up multiple arrests for fights, theft and impulsive behavior, and making multiple attempts at recovery, before he finally got sober.
Today, Eubanks is the chief operating officer for a long-term residential treatment program in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and beginning to speak nationally on the opioid epidemic. At the root of America’s addiction crisis, he explains, is untreated trauma.
“We have this society that is filled with emotional pain and trauma, and we have people prescribing narcotics that are very effective with treating emotional pain and trauma,” he says.
In recovery, more than a decade after Columbine, Eubanks finally went through stages of grief for the friend he lost. About 80% of the clients in recovery he has worked with can identify the trauma at the root of their addiction. It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as surviving a mass shooting: painful events in early childhood, like a divorce, can have a deep emotional impact but are often dismissed.
“Every time this happens, the ripple effect gets larger,” he says. “I don’t think we have a five-year or a 10-year solution. I think we’re looking at a 25-year solution.”
Caren Teves and her husband Tom were on vacation in Maui in 2012 when they received a frantic phone call from Amanda Lindgren, their son Alex’s girlfriend. Amanda and Alex had been at a movie. There had been a shooting. She didn’t know what had happened to him.
For the next twelve hours, the family desperately tried to locate Alex. In between frantic phone calls to the police and different local hospitals, they watched the sensationalistic TV news coverage about the mass shooter who attacked a midnight viewing of The Dark Knight Rises in Colorado. Photos of the perpetrator, with his garishly dyed red hair, kept appearing on the screen.
In the days after they learned Alex had been killed, Tom Teves challenged news anchors to report on his son’s heroism, and the bravery of other survivors and first responders, instead of trying to delve into the mind of the shooter.
It was an uphill battle. Some TV segments simply cancelled their interviews with the Teves family over their request that the perpetrator’s photograph not be displayed during an interview with them. “I wish I had not done that,” Caren Teves says, believing now that their principled stance only served to silence them. “I would have still been able to talk about Alex and call them out, whether the picture was up or not.”
Since 2012, the family has launched a campaign to prevent media coverage from playing into the perpetrators’ craving for fame by spreading the shooters’ photographs, focusing on body counts and ranking different shootings against each other.
Teves is scathing about the media’s refusal to change how they cover shootings. “Their argument boils down to: you’re not going to tell us what to do,” she says. “It’s a money-maker for them. Sensationalism sells.”
Today, she worries that the sheer horror of mass shootings is a barrier to Americans endorsing political change. “A lot of people don’t want to grasp it, because it’s that awful.” But if, after mass shootings 20 years ago, “we all stood up and said, ‘enough is enough,’ Alex would still be alive. He’d still be here.”
Erica Lafferty was barely awake one morning at the beginning of last month when she saw a Facebook alert from a childhood friend who had recently moved to Las Vegas, marking herself “safe.” Lafferty called her immediately. The friend had wanted to go to the country music concert the Las Vegas shooter had targeted, but “It was sold out by the time she had tried to get tickets,” her friend told her.
For Lafferty, the first hours after a mass shooting are the most excruciating. She knows that family members of the victims of a new attack are waiting, like she once did, for news, and “they’re still holding out this little bit of hope” that somehow their loved ones are still alive.
Five years ago, her mother, Dawn Hochsprung, an elementary school principal in Connecticut, had been in a meeting when she heard gunshots. She came out into the school hallway and was immediately shot by a disturbed young man with a military-style rifle who had forced his way inside. Lafferty had to wait until until the early hours of the day after the shooting before she was finally told her mother had been murdered.
After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the Obama administration endorsed a slate of gun control reforms, with the biggest push in favor of bipartisan legislation that would expand background check requirements on gun sales.
The Congressional vote on the background check legislation “was my biggest moment of hope,” and when it narrowly failed to get enough votes in the Senate, “also my biggest letdown”.
She was devastated again after Hillary Clinton, whom she had enthusiastically supported, lost the 2016 presidential election. “Gun laws had been this taboo subject in politics for so long, and not only did we have our first woman presidential candidate, this woman was constantly talking about gun violence and how it’s plaguing our country and her actual plan to do something about it.”
Asked what she thinks accounts for Clinton’s loss, she says, “I still don’t know. I feel like I lost all faith in humanity after that one.”
Lafferty, who now works for lobby group Everytown for Gun Safety, says she is comforted by the people who have made the issue a priority, even without being personally impacted by it. “If they can get up and do it out of the kindness of their hearts, I better be able to do it for my mother,” she says.
After the mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando last year, Lafferty could not function. She lay on her couch, watched the news coverage, and cried. But this year, after Las Vegas, she felt stronger, and immediately began to work to respond to the shooting, and to rally other people to call and email their elected officials and get involved in fighting for tougher gun laws.
“In the wake of the election, my anger is just a lot more intense than it used to be. I don’t have time to be sad,” she says.
Damian Meins could just as easily not have been in the office that Wednesday afternoon. Retired and working a new job as an inspector with the San Bernardino health department, Meins was expecting to be out in the field until he got last-minute word that he had to come in to the Inland Regional Center for a meeting.
Even still, with his wife battling a brutal case of the flu, he considered staying home before thinking better of it and going in.
These are the types of “what ifs” that wrack the minds of people like Tina Meins, Damian’s daughter: the small choices and facts of happenstance that place a loved one in the wrong place at precisely the wrong time.
“That was tough to accept,” she said. “He shouldn’t have even really been there in the first place.”
But he was there. According to Damian Meins’ coworkers, he had been standing by the Christmas tree at the office holiday party when Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik entered the building with semi-automatic rifles and handguns, donning tactical gear and firing off rounds in rapid succession. Farook and his wife managed to kill 16, including Meins, and injure 24 before being gunned down by police in a shootout.
Tina Meins, then 33, remembers showing up with the rest of her family a few hours after the news broke and being hustled off to the reunification center, which was set up a few blocks away from the site of the shooting.
Busload after busload of survivors pulled into the location, each bringing with it a moment of hope followed by a little bit more dread.
“Finally the last bus came and he wasn’t on it,” Meins says. “It’s really weird because you hold on to hope even if you know...” She pauses. “Even if you basically know, you hold onto hope until the very last second.
“There’s obviously the emotional and psychological trauma of trying to deal with the fact that you no longer have a dad. But there’s also the logistical and practical side of you that thinks: ‘OK well. What does this mean? Financially is my mom going to be able to live in this house?’ ... You find a different way to live but it takes a long time for things to even feel OK.”
Part of that new life for Meins, her mother and her sister has been as advocates for what she calls common sense gun control for things like universal background checks on gun purchases nationwide.
“You kind of wonder with every passing shooting, what will be the the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. They [Congress] have already had two people in their own ranks shot,” Meins says, referring to Steve Scalise and Gabrielle Giffords.
“But I do feel some optimism that things will change eventually. I don’t think it’s a short path, but I think it’ll change eventually.”
For Brandon Wolf, ever since he came to Orlando as a young man, the Pulse LGBT nightclub was a refuge, a safe haven. “Pulse was a place where I met people that were like me – that were young and had moved here in search of new things and to find themselves,” says Wolf, who was among the hundreds in the crowd the night that Omar Mateen entered the club with an AR-15 and began firing indiscriminately at patrons.
Wolf was in the bathroom getting ready to leave when he heard the first gunshots. He remembers seeing more than a dozen people frantically run into the bathroom and pin themselves back against the corner of the wall.
“A few seconds after this group of people was the smell of gunsmoke ... and you could almost get a hint of blood behind it.”
Wolf and his now partner, Eric, made a split second decision. They locked hands, ran out from the bathroom through the caustic plume of smoke until they saw an exit, then they kept running for several blocks until the panic and shock took over.
“My legs were like cement and I couldn’t run anymore and I just collapsed on the sidewalk,” Wolf says. It struck him that his close friends, Christopher “Drew” Leinonen and Juan Guerrero, were still inside.
After a frantic and sleepless night, Wolf’s worst nightmare would be confirmed by law enforcement the day after the shooting. Leinonen and Guerrero were among the 49 killed in what was, at the time, the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history.
Wolf shut down. For days he could barely even make it out of bed. Even as he resumed work, he described living in a deep fog for months. “I was a zombie. I was going through the motions. I was making it happen but it was always on my mind.”
It was largely through speaking up and out about his experiences that Wolf was able to start and rebuild a new normal. “Words are my coping mechanism. I use words to heal myself as much as to spread the message to other people.”
Wolf says he has lost track of the number of speaking engagements and events he has attended in the wake of the shooting to lobby for gun control, which have included speaking on stage at the Democratic National Convention and addressing January’s Women’s March in Washington DC.
And as for how he feels in crowded places like nightclubs now: “I think it’s different for everyone, but I feel powerful. I feel emboldened to be able to go into a public space and be myself and not be afraid because, ultimately, that’s what he wanted,” Wolf said. “The person who did this to us, he wanted us to feel afraid. He wanted us to feel small, and so to be able to have that power back is really freeing for me.”
The Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina is practically part of Malcolm Graham’s DNA. He was baptized there, he sang in the youth choir as a young man and watched a number of relatives get married there, too.
“Emanuel was a part of part of my foundation and our foundation as a family. That was the family church,” Graham says.
So it was no surprise to him when he discovered that his sister, Cynthia Graham Hurd, was one of the nine people killed at bible study when Dylann Roof pulled out a pistol and began firing during a round of prayer.
As is so often the case for the families of victims, Graham first learned about the shooting the way many Americans do: from the news.
“I called Cynthia because she was well known in the community and she attended Emanuel so she was my source of information to find out what’s going on down there.
“She didn’t answer. Then an hour went by and I started getting concerned.”
Graham, then living in Charlotte, North Carolina, eventually got word from a niece that his sister was missing and that the family believed she had been at the bible study. Malcolm, who knew a number of officials in Charleston law enforcement, learned from police that she had been killed before official word was released.
A veteran politician who had spent 16 years in elected office through 2014, Graham took on something of a spokesperson role for his family as questions from the press became a major part of their lives through the immediate aftermath and the two trials in which Roof was found guilty and sentenced to death.
“That was my therapy, if I can use that analogy,” Graham says. “She would want me to get out and and stand up for her and speak out for her so that’s just what I did.”
In 2016, fueled in part by his sense of loss over his sister, Graham launched an unsuccessful bid for a US Congressional seat. He hoped to use that position to advocate for “common sense gun laws” and for families like his who’ve been forever changed by this type of violence. “It’s a strange fraternity to belong to, of people who’ve been wronged in such a public way,” Graham says.
“When I saw Las Vegas and Orlando I could relate to how the families felt. I could relate to how the community was hurting. I could relate to people not understanding and asking the question why,” Graham says.
“It’s awful for any community to have to bear that name: Charleston strong. Orlando strong. Las Vegas Strong.”
November 14, 2017
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