Tuesday, July 29, 2008

My Notes & Mind-Talk; July 27 Tragedy --

The following relates my personal experience on the morning of July 27, 2008, with every facet I saw, heard, thought, and felt (written in the days following the shooting):

"Annie Jr., the Summer Musical Theatre Workshop Production! A musical ... good ... that will re-energize me" and I feel a sense of excitement. I’ve been going through some personal reinvention recently and, you know how sometimes when you have a time of introspection, the process can seem to bog down; also I’d just handled a major mishap when my truck got contaminated gas and needed a huge repair. I usually turn to my own music as my comfort and meditation. I’m thinking: "I need a musical infusion. This will be good for me – this will be good! We have a lot of talent in our church family." I haven’t been to church in three weeks and today it is time.

It is July 27th and I am going to church today. I am wearing, for the first time, the new, green baby-doll style top my daughter gave me a week ago and a pair of carefully coordinated capri pants. I enter through the right side of the sanctuary (there are entry doors on both sides) as I have done every time I’ve ever attended TVUUC. I’m sitting on the very end seat of the first pew (as I always do); this seat gives me an easy exit if I feel claustrophobic or drink an extra cup of tea that morning and need to use the restroom; it guarantees me a hasty retreat, if need be. I’m always thinking of "if need be" in terms of almost anything. I’m working on that but I think it goes back to survival issues of my teens. This morning I again choose this seat. I feel fidgety. Moments later, for some inexplicable reason, I move back one row, to the seat directly behind my first choice. I soon hear the woman in back of me coughing, something I notice immediately as I'm wary about catching a cold. Well, all is well – I identify her cough as allergy-related ... so I don’t return to the front seat. I try to relax and settle in.

The sanctuary has filled completely...every seat appears to be occupied. I get out my writing pad, so I can make notes to send to my UUA-sponsored prison ministry prisoner pen-pal with whom I exchange letters, spiritual energy, and frivolous chit-chat. He’s a musician and he loves to talk about songs.

I always arrive at church and get seated a few minutes before most of the people populate the sanctuary. It gives me time to screw my head on, get on a spiritual plane, and glance around at the church that gives me so much. I’ve been missing minister Chris for months now (as he’s been on sabbatical); I’m sure everybody has been missing him, and I sit here and think about how wonderful it will be when he returns to the pulpit on August 10th. I feel good.

Greg is standing there a few feet away from me – an impressive-looking man, very large and with a friendly demeanor. He’s almost always standing there with his "order of service" church programs in hand, doling them out one by one as people enter his side of the sanctuary (there is another person doing the same thing on the opposite entranceway).

I can’t help but notice Greg’s beautiful shirt. Usually, I recall, he wears a plain, short-sleeved shirt. Today he has a handsome, festive dark green shirt (it looks sort of silky and flowing) with pictures of soda cans and food items on it (probably to be in party mode for the reception scheduled to take place right after the children’s performance.)

The congregation has heard the church announcements and Greg hands me the collection basket; I put my check in it and pass the basket to the next person in my row. The church is full but more people are straggling in now, looking for a place to sit. Greg hands each of them an order of service.

The actual play is about to begin and its introduction includes mention of several examples of the types of 1930s depression-days situations we will be seeing portrayed ... abandoned children, all kinds of extreme circumstances that we, in 2008, wouldn’t expect to occur. "OK, I think -- expect to see stuff about serious issues". I see parents with their cameras.

The actors march in through the door which is immediately to my left, walk past me and continue on to the front of the sanctuary. Their costumes and makeup are magnificent, perfect! This is no small potatoes production ... these kids really look and act professional. The characters of "Annie" begin to come to life! It is enthralling. I’m very glad I came to church this morning.

The kids do their first scene and song ... it is great! Now they’re doing their second song. Their stage presence is awesome. I do find myself wishing that the music sound track volume would be turned down a bit, as portions of the actors’ voices and words get drowned out by the music. Of course, in the sanctuary where the acoustics create a lot of reverb, perception of the sound quality depends on where you are sitting. Anyway, I’m concentrating on hearing the kids’ words and am sitting sort of twisted toward the right in order to get the best view of the performance.

Suddenly, a horrific bomb-like blast somewhere near and alongside me on the left blows out my hearing; my head is banging inside and has whistling, ringing sounds in it, then nothing. I lose momentary consciousness. "Ooh, here I am again and I’m staring straight ahead. My God ... Greg is on the floor in front of me. He’s lying too still". I'm scared and immobilized.

The play (or something) still seems to be going on, though I can’t really hear. I look to my right towards the performance area, but don’t see anything. Wait, there is a scuffle in front of the door immediately to my left. This is the door the kids had come through moments earlier. This is the door I always use to come and go. I see a man bending over Greg and touching him, then moving away. My head is ringing. Greg is really there. As a second blast takes place, I see a man with a gun and big streaks, like long orange tongues, shoot out about four or five feet in front of where I'm sitting, sort of semi-slumped in the pew. The noise of the 2nd blast accompanies a hard, concentrated feeling of blunt impact on my mid forehead, an inch or so above my eye (on that rounded part of the forehead bone). My head and ear are now majorly hurting and spinning and ringing. The loudness of the blasts is intensified by mics that are set up for the performance. "Please turn it off". My head and ears ache. This isn’t the play.

"What has become of Bill (my former guitar player who is the church’s sound engineer)? He's usually in what he calls "the cave", the sound room, located on one side of the rear of the sanctuary; that thought momentarily flashes across my mind.

My consciousness weaving, I remain immobilized and deafened, though struggling to focus. Suddenly, a male voice comes through loudly and clearly from somewhere that sounds like it's inside my head, "Get down! Get down!" At that moment, it seems weird to me that I am alive and able to move. There is a strong smell of gun powder. Around the time of the 3rd blast, I crouch behind the pew bench that's in front of me (remember I had moved from the original seat?) and make my way along the length of the sanctuary to that inviting sight – the wide open back door. I expect to feel another shot before I make it to the door. The rest of my pew which was jam-packed moments before, is completely empty ... no one is there. It is so weird and I'm really scared. I fly through the door and take a deep breath of the outdoor air; it is heavy, humid, smoggy, and hot, and I thankfully gulp it in! I climb up the grassy hillside toward the woods. I want to run into the woods and hide, but I see one man standing on the grassy hill and I go to him.

In retrospect: I spent the next two days in tearful, humble gratitude to those who protected me with their heroism; I’d been in very close proximity to the gunman. It is amazing that I am alive. A number of times, I pinched my arm to reassure myself that I was actually alive. I will be eternally grateful to Greg for giving me and others our initial chance to continue living, to the men of the congregation who subdued the gunman and further enabled me to escape, and to the mysterious male voice that told me to "get down" even when I couldn't hear.

My sincere gratitude, always, to the dear man who held me in his arms after I reached the grassy hill outside of the back door.

The source of my head pain was the middle of my forehead slightly to the left; the doctor said that it looked like pellets, "projectiles" had hit me and penetrated ... I had a red, bruised, diveted bump there and, when I could gingerly wash the area, the odd little markings of blood near my hairline washed off. The hospital staff did not lift the bangs of my hair to look at my forehead and, instead, concentrated on my ear and fragmented emotional state. While waiting in the hospital's treatment room, I overheard an EMT loudly and graphically announce to the nurses at the desk, the details of the victims' injuries that he had seen while transporting the two fatally- wounded people to another hospital. It made me even more upset to hear this and I was eager to get out of that emergency room and go home to heal myself. I did not want to be a victim. I absolutely did not want to be named as a victim. I wanted my wound to go away. Thankfully, my hearing returned within the second week and I was able to play my music. During subsequent months, the pellet fragments migrated to the soft tissue of my right sinus cavity and I had an eye hemorrhage that took a month to clear up. At that point, I had a C-T scan, which documented the reality of what had happened. I took earnest measures to heal myself.

The news of the shootings had been carried around the world and much love and support was shown to the TVUUC and Westside UUC congregations.


Kirsten said...


Thank you for sharing your story, thoughts, and reflections. They are beautifully written.

Kirsten Anderson (TVUUC member)

jenspirko said...

Thanks, Clara: I was sitting near the front, right behind Vicki, and my daughter was one of those excited, talented children you saw, all too briefly, at the start of the show.

My memories take me to the shooting and its aftermath. It was so wonderful to read about -- and thus to remember -- the happy excitement that began that morning.

Your recollections have reminded me of a beauty that was disrupted, but not lost forever.

Thank you.
Jennifer Spirko (TVUUC member)

Anonymous said...

This is not from anonymous - it's from Angela but have not gotten through a couple of times with my attempts to sign in. Just want to say I am so VERY glad you are writing about this absolutely terrifying-sounding experience. What courage it takes to relive this and put it into words!! I hope that bit by bit you will heal and come to a point where you can feel peaceful, content and yes expanded by what you have been through. I believe too that after a while there is music you will make that will be haunting and beautiful in part that speaks to this day and to the courage of the people who survived and the love of those who did not.
Your friend

Anonymous said...

Your reflection is captivating, wonderfully written, and greatly appreciated.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts...

lovable liberal said...

Clara, my thoughts are with you and my small godless prayers. My wishing that you hadn't had to go through this doesn't change anything. You did, you all did. I still wish, but today is a new day with all its history in tow, and I hope you can find some meaning and growth and morality to take away from the horror. But that's not going to be easy.