Saturday, December 4, 2010
THE MALL, THE MURDERS... AND ME.
First off -- This is LONG, but breaking it into two or three posts, just didn't seem to fit, considering the circumstance. Just hope you can endure it; it will be worth it.
I often tell people that, as followers of the Lord, we need to trust Him that we will be in the right place at the right time.
On December 5, 2007, early afternoon, I was heading to Westroads Mall here in Omaha to take some time to relax and snack and wander and enjoy the Christmas lights and decorations. I'd had a busy morning with my young grandson and was now free. My evening was going to be very busy, because it was time for the rehearsal for our Christmas play at church. I had four whole hours of freedom. I was so looking forward to that time, that quiet and blessed time.
About an hour after arriving at the mall, I suddenly decided to go to the opposite end from my usual "wandering" location. I went to J C Penney's to see if I could find a sweater. Something significantly on sale... truly, TRULY on sale.
Found what was perfect for me, and, after the purchase, I was preparing to walk out into the corridor, but heard a man hollering loudly, it echoing down the hall, and I hesitated; I didn't want to risk walking into a fight of some kind. A few seconds later, a group came running through. All ages, all sizes, men and women. My first thought while watching them rush through was "what bus are they going to miss?" The last person, a well-dressed and high-heeled lady, glanced at me and said, "There's shooters here."
I looked at the lady who was standing next to me, an elderly, small, sophisticated, white-haired, beautifully dressed woman. [I was dressed about as casually as you can and still show up in public!] I said, "I'll take care of you." She looked me up and down and said, "OK." -- She has always told people that I said to her "I'm your guardian angel." That wouldn't be anywhere near the truth; just ain't my style.
I called Dave quickly. He was at work at Offutt AFB, a few miles south of town. My phone signal wasn't very good, so when he answered all I said was, "Someone said there's shooters here at the mall. Don't know if it's a rumor. Pray."
In the next few minutes the stress piled. Penney's basement had a special delivery area, and the police invaded a good portion of the mall through that entrance. While I stood near the corridor, able to see a good distance down the hallway, the police rushed in. The store's corridor glass door closed, two of the officers faced the interior of the store, stone-faced, clutching rifles across their chests, looking at those of us who were there. A couple other officers ran up the escalator, guns in hand.
Partly because of my upbringing, I'm not one that runs to hide in a closet. I always look for exits or prepare for a crisis, not backing down. So, in this situation, I moved a few feet and stood among the clothes racks so I could hit the floor if necessary. I wasn't afraid... I just knew I needed to concentrate on what was happening.
A few minutes later... don't know how long it was -- stressful, adrenal-style times overwhelm the normal time frame -- the store manager came through and said we needed to evacuate the store and head out the back entrance, then go across the parking lot and over to a strip mall with businesses and small shops ... the equivalent of a couple-blocks walk. When I reached the outside, I saw "my" lady again, and joined her and there was another lady holding her arm and supporting her. The other lady was an employee of Penney's and, as we were helping Alyce across the lot and across the street, Julia [I knew that by reading her name tag] suddenly said, "We haven't prayed." So, as we walked through the snow and ice and helped Alyce, we prayed that the Lord would protect and help and bring all of this to the right light.
Amazing to watch: it was COLD out, in the teens, and some people had no jackets or long sleeved shirts, because they'd dropped them or left them behind when they had to run, and some had small children, even those in strollers, were not wearing enough warm clothing. I tossed my bag to a couple young gals and said to just wear the shirt and sweater and they could keep them, but if they wanted to give them back I'd be in the office building a block away. [A few minutes later they found me and returned them. I was just happy that they'd been able to stay warm for a while before they'd worked out their problems.] Julia and Alyce had kept walking ahead while I stopped to talk to the young ladies. When I had rushed away from them after giving them my clothes, trying to catch up with Alyce and Julia, and was walking across the strip mall, headed for the office building, a police car suddenly cut between me and the stores, and a policeman jumped out of the car, and pointed his gun over the top and hollered to a guy who was walking on the sidewalk, "Stop!... Hit the ground!" The man, who had walked out of Penney's with the rest of us, did. [I found out later that it was because he was wearing a camo jacket and a ball cap, the only description of the shooter(s) the police had at that time.] At that moment, I called Dave again, and this time I burst into tears. Just overwhelmed. Within a couple minutes, another officer showed up, and the man was freed.
I went to the office building and helped Julia and Alyce. The only funny part ... some of the ladies who had been forced out of the mall were in a hair salon, and, with the salon-style capes, their hair in various kinds of care, including perms and color-adjustments of one type or another, were sitting in the lobby of this office building. All I could think of was what a mess this could end up being for them.
A while later, the Penney's employees were called back to the building, so Julia left Alyce and me. A while later... [this is a constant phrase from that day... so little accurate time was known], I was able to contact Alyce's retirement center and let them know that she was OK and that I would bring her home. I had to walk a long way around the mall to find my car, but I made it in a few minutes, and passed through the police checkpoint, picked up Alyce and took her to her place. The office members ran out for her and just blessed my socks off.-- A few days later gave me a gift card with which I purchased a stone-style vase. [BTW, the reason she couldn't get home without help was because the center's van had dropped her off, but the police wouldn't let anyone enter the mall parking lots, so she would have been stuck there for hours. I just happened to be her protector, keeper, provider.]
Up to that point, there were only rumors regarding the shootings, the number of deaths, the number of shooters. It hit the news nationally, almost immediately. I was headed for my car when I decided to call my Mom in Tacoma, Washington, and warn her that if she heard about the mall, that she could know I would be OK. She said she was watching it on TV right then.
After dropping Alyce off, I headed home. When nearly there I realized I hadn't called my friend, Marge, to let her know I was OK. That morning I had told her I was going to be at the mall. When I called her, she became ecstatic... when this event had hit the news she had called others around town and her family members in other states asking them to pray for my protection.
When I got home, I was a bit in shock. Even though I remember the tiny details of my time at the mall and the drive home, I hardly remember what I did later, or how I felt. I, of course, turned on the TV and was buried in that news for hours... the rehearsal for that night was canceled, of course.
The final result: 8 murdered in one store, Von Maur, by a 19-year old "man", who took his own life at the end. Several were wounded physically; many in the store and nearby locations suffered emotionally for quite some time, including the police who were faced with horrific bloodshed. The officers also struggled after facing terrified people, hiding in closets and fitting rooms, sometimes not realizing that, as a policeman opened a door, they were safe, not a target.
Ten days later, I went to the mall again. I needed to. Von Maur was still closed, being refurbished and remodeled. I just wanted to walk through and feel and see what I needed to ... I didn't need much healing ... just a nugget or two. I also went to Penney's to find Julia. When I finally saw her at a customer service location, and I moved through the line and reached her, she dropped what she was doing and ran around the counter and threw her arms around me and sobbed.
A few days later, the day before Von Maur was reopening, the memorial bits and pieces were going to be removed and put in storage. I went there to take photos and walk through the whole phase of healing, one more time.
Julia and I went to Alyce's center for lunch in early January. She, and a number of others, just blessed and thanked us so much for what we had done.
It's been three years. I still have the sweater and I wear it every December 5th, and will until it's one ragged piece of junk. I've lost track of Julia. Alyce recently moved to Branson, MO, to be with family. [OH, and her family members, who at first said to her, when she told them about the woman who had said she was her guardian angel, "You believed her!!? You really believed she'd take you home!?" now have some respect for me.]
But the point is... what I began this post with... I know that I was in the exact place the Lord wanted me to be at exactly the right time to help exactly the right person. I wasn't there to keep someone from being killed, or help the wounded. I was only there to take one elderly lady to a safe location and then to take her home.
It was worth it.