Hartford Distributors Reopens

Employees at Hartford Distributors, Inc. walk together to the front entrance this morning before pausing for a moment of silence. The company is back to work this morning in Manchester at the scene of last week's deadly rampage that left nine people dead. Company employees and officials paused for a moment of silence at 7am this morning. (Patrick Raycraft, Hartford Courant / August 11, 2010)

"I was afraid to come back, I admit it."

Michael Raymond arrived at Hartford Distributors Inc. in Manchester at 6:45 a.m. Wednesday, eight days after his coworker Omar Thornton killed eight men before turning the gun on himself in Connecticut's worst workplace massacre.

Raymond said he had chills running down his spine during a ceremony outside the office and warehouse. He was among more than 100 people there, including Teamsters from beer distributors throughout Connecticut and Rhode Island who were on hand to help out. Men draped arms over each others' shoulders. Women hugged.

"Everybody was together, and we're all going through the same thing together," said Raymond, 48.

For dozens of workers, a comforting first day, with shared pizza, flowers and sympathy cards around the office and hugs from delivery route customers, was a welcome respite from traumatic memories.

Most of the men and women who work at Hartford Distributors Inc. were back on the job Wednesday, although managers told those who weren't ready to do whatever felt right. Before they walked into the warehouse, company president Ross Hollander spoke to them on the front lawn, at a makeshift memorial in front of the company sign.

"We've done our grieving. It's time for us to go back and do what we do best," he told them.

Employees overwhelmingly wanted to return, Hollander said, "to go about their lives, go do their jobs, go earn a paycheck for their families."

The company chose Wednesday as the reopening for two reasons — one is that the last funeral, for Francis J. Fazio Sr., was held Tuesday. The other was that shiva, the weeklong first phase of Jewish mourning, ended Tuesday for the family of Louis Felder, a manager who was killed.

Six hours into his workday, as he drove a forklift, Raymond said, "Now that I am back, it's a whole lot better."

That feeling was widespread Wednesday inside the office and warehouse.

Raymond said he had been directly in danger's path during the shootings. He said he heard the pop-pop-pop of bullets, but they were soft enough that he didn't recognize the sound. He said he walked into the offices to find out what the noise was.

"I asked Omar. He held up a gun," Raymond said. He said he thought, "'OK, I better get out of here.'" As he walked out the front door, he saw a secretary frozen in fear. "I just picked her up and made her go," he said. He looked embarrassed as he described how he had to shove her out. "I don't like pushing women," he said. "I didn't like doing it."

On opening day, inventory manager John Kuehn Jr. wore a green and white ribbon attached to his shirt with an Anheuser Busch pin. Green stands for preventing workplace violence, and white represents purity, he said. Many of the drivers wore the same symbol.

Kuehn had already been inside the warehouse — someone had to bring in the clean-up crews — but still found the ritual deeply meaningful.

"The ceremony was touching," he said. After a moment of silence for their slain friends, a bagpiper played as they walked toward the building. Later, a line of delivery trucks rolled slowly out the driveway. Hollander and other company and union officials hugged drivers who leaned out of their cabs. Each driver pulled his air horn again and again. The different tones echoed in the air, like a song of defiance. That moved Kuehn most, "the camaraderie of the trucks leaving."

Hollander and other managers had worked through the week to prepare a temporary offsite office. But no one wanted that. "The girls came in this morning, said, 'No, we want to work here, it's our home,'" he said.

The offices in Manchester still bear the scars of last week's violence. In Linda Davidson's office, there's a large square of concrete flooring where carpet had been cut away.

"There's a few doors that are beat up pretty bad," she said. Most of the women hadn't come to work yet that morning. "It was before 8, thank God."