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Love is the spirit of this church: I was there at TVUUC

Love is the spirit of this church: I was there at TVUUC

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It has been a very long couple of days. I have only just now gotten to the point where I have the time and energy to write about what happened to our community yesterday. I'm sure most of you have seen tons of news coverage about the shootings at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. Some of you have also blogged about it, including my beloved salvador_dalai who was there with me and our family. This is not meant as a corrective or replacement to other comments and accounts, just my addition to the mosaic.

I wanted to write about some of my impressions. First a quick news update: My father, John Worth, was among the shooting victims. He got out of the hospital today and is going to be OK. He is in quite a bit of pain, and it is still too early to tell whether he will regain vision in his right eye. He is shaken up and exhausted, as is my mom. We are all having a lot of trouble sleeping, and the kids are understandably fragile.

OK, now I will back up to tell the story as I experienced it. It is very long, and not very pithy. I'm very tired.

As I guess most of you know, TVUUC was having a performance of Annie (actually a shortened version, Annie Junior). Hannah, who's 8, and a couple of  dozen other kids (from about her age up to about 17, mostly middle-schoolers) had been working hard for two weeks, including two 5-hour rehearsals on Thursday and Friday, and a big dress rehearsal on Saturday. I got to see that performance, and I was really impressed. I was anticipating writing a glowing review of the show on this here blog on Sunday afternoon.

The sanctuary was rearranged a bit to accommodate the performance, so the pews were on three sides of a big rectangle. This is a very simplified diagram.

-------                                         --------
     *               "stage"                   *
     *                                               *
     *                                              1
     *                                              *
     *   * * * * * * 2 * * * * *            *
     *   * * * * * * *333 * * *           *
     *   * * * * * * * * *  4* *            *

There were more rows of pews, of course, but this is the general layout. The exclamation point (!) is the shooter. The hyphens are the exits to "backstage," which is basically outside. They had set up one of those white "party" tents outside the stage right backdoor to shade the kids waiting there. Number 1 is my parents, number 2 is the musical director (also the director of the play), and the threes are where I was sitting with my husband, Z (age 4), and mother-in-law. The number 4 is my best friend, visiting to see the play. The spaces at the bottom are the two entrances to the sanctuary. (remember there are actually more rows of pews than shown here; I just wanted to give a general idea.)

There were a lot of people there that day, because of the play, and more kids than usual in the sanctuary for the same reason. (Our church has "Sunday School" during services, so normally the kids would've been back in the classroom wing.) There were some announcements, and the collection (can't leave that part out), and then it was showtime! Like most of the people, I assume, I was totally focused on the stage area; I was second row center, just behind the director, Vicki.

At the end of the overture, all the kids in the play came in from the two entrances and made diagonals across the stage as a kind of preview promenade, then they exited to the back. Right at the beginning of Scene Two (just before "The Hard-Knock Life"!), a deafening boom rang out. It was unimaginably loud. Some people said later they thought that it was part of the performance -- some sound effect for a kids' play! I knew that couldn't be the case, but I also knew they'd had some trouble with the sound system at the dress rehearsal, so I thought that there'd been something electrical. Then there was a second BOOM -- it just reverberated. Kids started crying, and Vicki stood up in front of me, as I started to look around and figure what the hell was going on, and she yelled -- in her wonderful Director Voice (tm): "Get down! He's got a gun!"

I threw Zeke under the pew in front of me and got on top of him. I heard later that my mother-in-law helped shove Z down and she was getting down -- the older couple next to me were on the floor, Rob was down but sort of over his mom and me. Z was screaming, his face absolutely contorted with terror. There was a third shot, and simultaneously there was commotion, yelling. I was aware of very little, other than Zeke's terror and my own.

I really, quite sincerely thought that we were going to die. It was the most horrible sensation of my life.

There were no more shots for a moment, and I saw under the pew that people were running toward the doors ahead of me. I also realized that Hannah was outside. Realize that we had no clear what happened, how many people might be shooting, where he/they had been or come from. I screamed at Rob to go get Hannah, probably no sooner than he himself came to the same realization. He vaulted the single pew in front of us and ran out the stage right back door. My mother-in-law climbed over the same pew -- afterward, she said she must have had one of those adrenaline rushes that enable superhuman feats, because she's pretty sure she'd never make it over a pew under normal circumstances -- in a skirt and heels, no less. Now standing, I could see that most of the people were gone, some were milling around to my right, where it became apparent the injuries were. I saw my mom on the floor beneath her walker -- my dad was nowhere to be seen. I knew Mom would never be able to stand by herself, so I gave Z to his granny and she ran out the same door after Rob with my screaming boy. I climbed over the pew myself and went to mom -- after taking a second to pick up my purse and laptop. Can you believe it? What a dumb thing to do (but lucky, as it turned out).

Mom was not hurt. It didn't even occur to me to check her for blood or anything; I guess my brain didn't really admit of the possibility. I helped her up and headed out the nearer (stage left, or at the top right of the diagram) door. I saw a very bloody person sitting behind her, and there was a lot of yelling and scuffling and carrying on. I figured that if my dad wasn't there, he was probably in the middle of the action -- where, frankly, my mom didn't need to be. I helped her navigate the little concrete stoop outside with her walker, and helped her get onto the grass. I left her in a shady spot well back from the church, and went to find Rob and the kids. On the way, I saw my dad. He had some blood on his cheek, not much, and I pointed to where Mom was. I was relieved to see him, but I was focused on finding Hannah, whom I hadn't seen yet.

I found her crying her heart out on her dad's lap. In Annie she played Drake the butler, so here was this beautiful little girl with a black mustache drawn on and a snazzy black tux (tail coat, bow tie, the whole works). She was clutching onto her friend M., who was just as scared, plus upset that she'd lost her own costume's hat (she played the dogcatcher). I held onto both of them and petted them, and tried to reassure M. that she wasn't in trouble for losing her hat, that we happy to see they were safe, etc.

Later, Hannah told me that some of the adults helping with the play had hustled them off, to a part of the lawn separated from the church by a bank and a stand of brush. Hannah said, "We wanted to go back and see what was happening, but they wouldn't let us!" I told her how happy I was that the grownups didn't let them go back to see anything! In fact, neither of my kids saw much of anything -- they didn't see the shootings, or the blood. that was not the case with my little friend B., who is just Zeke's age, whose mother was injured, or I., also 4, who was seated with her parents right behind Greg McKendry -- that frightened little girl is surely, her mom believes, one of the people Greg saved by taking the shot himself.

Back to what I saw and heard for myself:
A very concerned woman came to where we -- R., our kids, most of the kids in the play and the grownups who were reunited with them, were, and asked if anyone whether Hannah S. was OK. We said, "This is Hannah -- she's fine." The woman said Hannah's grandfather was very worried about her and searching for her. She then whispered to Rob that he should come to his father -- "He's my father!" I said. She whispered that he'd been injured, and I followed her through the brush, but then I lost track of her. I didn't see my dad outside the church where he'd been before. I was really worried about him -- I didn't think he'd been seriously hurt, but I knew he has PTSD and also suffers TIA's under stress. I thought there was a good chance one of these conditions might have disoriented him, and was worried he'd wander off, or who knows what.

So I went back into the sanctuary. I wish I hadn't

The police were there, but no EMTs yet. I didn't realize at first that the officers were there -- there were a few civilians still milling around, especially on the right-hand side of the diagram above, where I now saw all the injuries must have been. I saw the same blood-soaked woman, and realized it was my friend Tammy. She was a nightmare vision, her beautiful curly hair drenched in blood, her face covered. She was sitting there, staring straight ahead. I don't think I really registered it at the time. I mean, there were people down -- folks were helping those who had fallen to the floor, and Tammy was just sitting there. I guess at some level I thought "Sitting up = not too badly hurt," and I walked on by. It was only later, talking to my mom (who'd been sitting in front of Tammy and saw her sit like that from the beginning, even though her two boys, 4 and 3, were crying) and seeing her sons and husband, that I realized how seriously hurt she was. She must have been in shock.

There was blood everywhere on that side of the sanctuary,  a huge puddle of it on the main floor, not far from Tammy (and where my parents had been sitting). A group of people were gathered around a man on the floor near the back entrance -- where the shooter was, I soon realized. One of them was saying, "Come on now, breathe!" So I knew it was bad, but I didn't know at the time who it was. Not far from him, just outside the sanctuary doorway, I saw the police had somebody down. The shooter was on his stomach, and there were shotgun shells everywhere. Apparently, the police found more than 70.

In the vestibule, people were running everywhere, mostly those who hadn't found their children on the lawn. "Where's S!?" "Has anyone seen J?!?" "Where's G?!? Did you see G?" Somebody was searching the cloakroom, the office, and Vicki said something that sent a choking fear into the pit of my stomach: These four kids were the ones waiting to make their entrances from the back of the sanctuary. Where the shooter had been. Somebody else ran up: "There's a little girl named C crying in the bathroom, covered in blood. Who does she belong to?" (It turned out her mother was among the victims.) Finally, someone else ran up and told us that a bunch of kids, including the tiniest ones, who'd been in the nursery, had gone to the next-door church, Second Presbyterian. They were all located. I understand two of them, including the youngest child in the show, saw at least some of the shootings.

I made my way around the front of the church to where my family were. I didn't see my dad, but more police were arriving, and the ambulances started to arrive. I wasn't willing to be away from kids any longer, and I figured I'd be in the way of the officers and EMTs. They did indeed clear the building, and we all gathered on the lawn. Dad wasn't there, but I found out later that my mother-in-law had helped him around a bit; later, when the police had asked us to gather in the Fellowship Hall, I saw on our way into the building that dad was being treated by an EMT under the "backstage" shade tent the kids had been using. I held Zeke so he couldn't see, because one of the other patients was pretty bloody. I was very relieved, inside the room, to see his buddy B., only to realize that B's shirt was covered with his mother's  blood. That freaked Z out a bit -- hell, it freaked me out. Seeing his shirt made my recollection of his mother sitting there, zombie like and soaked with blood, click into focus. (I've been seeing that picture  in my head a lot lately.)

That's it for the exciting part of the story. We didn't leave for several hours, and then we went to the hospital. There, I learned about Dad's eye, and that my friend Tammy was so badly hurt.  I also was interviewed by the detective (as were R. and both kids), and nagged Mom until she gave up and agreed to go with me to the hospital cafe to get some hot food. There were helpful Red Cross at the surgery waiting room, plus a city councilwoman who was just trying to think of whatever she could do to help. She ended up handing me a bunch of $1 bills that that I used to buy bottles of water. She said she felt so helpless -- this was just about the first thing she'd been able to do to help anyone.

++edit made at 7:27 a.m. to change the number of kids from "couple" to "couple dozen." Also, the "pews" got erased from my diagram, so I put in some asterisks to show the layout. Hopefully they will stay. Sorry.

I think my favorite comment on the whole event is from Hannah. "This was the worst day of my life," she said. "All those times, when I was having a bad day and said it was the worst? Well, this was worser."

Worser indeed.
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