After Trolley, after Newtown, after Aurora can we ever feel safe?
After the shooting, Rob Hauck gathered with half a dozen people at a Salt Lake City Starbucks, as he does most mornings, to talk about the day's news.
For the past week there really has been only one topic: the tragedy in Connecticut, which has inevitably led to a free-flowing discussion about high-capacity magazines, assault weapons, gun control, mental health, comments by President Barack Obama and the National Rifle Association and, of course, Trolley Square.
With that 2007 shooting, two days before Valentine's Day, Salt Lake City joined a lamentable list of communities at least 39 in the past 23 years that have experienced deadly rampages, events that replaced a sense of security with one of vulnerability. Six people died that day, including the shooter, four were wounded and many more family, friends, strangers will never be the same.
"It changed our town forever," Hauck said.
He wasn't there that night and didn't know any of the victims, but he still feels traumatized which makes you wonder if we as a community, indeed a nation, are suffering from collective post-traumatic stress disorder. Because, try as we might, it's nearly impossible to come to terms with such devastating violence.
"I don't think I've ever healed," Hauck said. "Knowing people in your community died young, senselessly it hurts."
Newtown was worse, as Travis Juretich said on a Facebook post he later shared with the group: "Probably the saddest thing that could happen has happened."
After the shooting, it seems unthinkable. Or all too familiar if you are someone like Lindsay Sharifi.
"You know what it feels like to be so scared and to hide and to not know what is going to happen next," said the 32-year-old Lehi resident. "You get the same feelings of fear and dread, and I get physically sick."
Sharifi was at Trolley Square in 2007 with her niece, who was almost 4. They were headed for Cabin Fever, the gift store where three people died. Sharifi's niece, for unexplainable reasons, stopped and said she wanted to go upstairs. Sharifi insisted they continue, but her niece pulled her down to eye level and said, "We have to go upstairs."
So they did.
As they reached the second floor, near the Basket Loft, shots rang out; someone shouted that there was a gunman.
For six long minutes, Sharifi and her niece hid with others in a dark closet at the back of the store, able to hear the terrible events as they unfolded below them.
It was a long time before Sharifi felt comfortable at a movie theater a confined, dark space filled with strangers that felt too much like that closet. In July, when a gunman killed 12 people and wounded 58 at a midnight screening at a theater in Aurora, Colo., her fear returned.
Sharifi said the worry never goes away, but she holds fast to her belief that "the majority of people are good."
She has found it cathartic to help others struggling with their own loss and devastation, understanding keenly what they need. She focuses, too, on the good that came out of one of this city's most dismal moments.
"Things like this bring a community together," she said, "and bring awareness that we have to work together to get the mentally ill help."
Sharifi still shops at Trolley Square, where she met her future husband in the late 1990s, when both worked there.
"I have great memories of Trolley Square," Sharifi said. "I am not going to let the gunman take them from me."
But there are limits. Sharifi won't go to Trolley Square around holidays.
"I can't," she said.
After the shooting, Trish Merrill, of East Millcreek, sought to make a priority of living in the moment, to distill her life to what is truly important.
"Being in a shooting was horrific but, in a way, that was the easy part. Instinct kicks in," Trish said. "It is the aftermath that is hard, the day-to-day decisions to not let fear and despair overwhelm and freeze you."
Trish and her husband, Brad, had taken their four children to The Old Spaghetti Factory at Trolley Square that February night to celebrate their oldest daughter's birthday. Brad was outside the restaurant with a son, waiting to be seated, when a shotgun blast blew out a glass door on the square's west side and a shooter stepped through the frame. Brad and the gunman made eye contact and, in that moment of recognition, Brad's perception changed from "feeling completely safe and familiar to feeling completely afraid and unfamiliar."
Brad grabbed his son and turned to run, all the while his thoughts darting to his wife and three children who were on the lower floor at The Sharper Image.
Trish was just entering the store when she heard what sounded like boxes being crushed or boards being nailed. And then she recognized the sounds: breaking glass and gunshots. She grabbed her daughter and two sons and dove, covering the children with her body. Trish watched as the gunman looked up at the spot where she had just left her husband and, as she dug down, heard a blast. She had to wait until it was all over to learn her husband had not been shot.
The Merrills were shaken and horrified, but they'd survived.
Two weeks later, on a business trip in Oklahoma, Brad saw a man in a trench coat carrying an umbrella outside a convenience store and had a panic attack that left him cowering on the seat of his rented car, hiding below the windows and weeping. Brad, 46, hadn't discussed that episode in detail until this week, when he recounted it on Facebook.
"The memory of that moment of realization, and accompanying heartache," Brad wrote, " ... has surfaced (albeit at different levels of severity) far too many times since that night in Tulsa Virginia Tech, Aurora, Portland and Newtown this past weekend."
For Trish, it's much the same.
"Trolley Square is not something I think about every day but, with each new shooting, those memories and emotions come to the surface again," said Trish, 46. "Things like being in a crowded mall, not being able to see the exit, unexpected loud noises become difficult once more. The intense feeling of needing to shield and protect your children, and yourself, physically and emotionally also comes to the forefront."
For those in Newtown, she said, "my heart aches for what they are going through now but mostly for what is yet to come."
After the shooting, there are places that became both haunting and hallowed nursing homes, train stations, office buildings, concert venues, apartment buildings, city halls, grocery stores, maintenance yards, military bases, hotels, post offices, night clubs, welding shops, restaurants, hair salons, spas, college campuses, malls, cafes and coffee shops, temples and churches, libraries, movie theaters, businesses and schools.
Is anywhere safe?
Scott Guymon, of Salt Lake City, will visit Trolley Square on Feb. 12, just as he as done for the past five years, to leave a bouquet of flowers.
"I don't want to forget it," he said.
Guymon was working at The Sharper Image that night. He took cover in a storage room with about 16 other people, who made sure children were as far from the door as possible.
He saw a counselor after the shooting, but with each new attack, it all comes back.
"It's still happening in other places Colorado, Oregon, Connecticut and it shouldn't," Guymon said. "In my mind, soon there will be a time when every community has had something like that happen, where someone goes in and decides to take everyone else's life and their own, and it shouldn't happen that way. It should be safer."
Guymon, 34, is studying to be a teacher. He is amazed by the heroic sacrifice of Sandy Hook Elementary teacher Vicki Soto, 27, who was shot as she guided her students into a closet.
"Will I have to worry about the safety of my children?" he asked. "Truthfully, I don't think that is something a teacher should have to worry about."
Guymon wants change. But how? What?
"The only two ways to change it [is to] regulate guns or regulate people. And which do you prefer?" he asked. "We have certain freedoms here in the United States. The one is to purchase and own guns, and the other is inalienable rights. Either way you go, you're going to lessen one of those rights."
Still: "I want safety. I want to feel that when I go to a store or a movie theater or when I am in school, that I don't have to worry about that," Guymon said. "I realize that safety will have a cost. But the fear of being shot and killed for no apparent reason, that's scary."
And that fear lives on, to some extent, in all of us.
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