By DAVID OWENS and DAVE ALTIMARI, firstname.lastname@example.org
11:02 PM EDT, August 3, 2010
Omar Thornton almost slept through his 6 a.m. wakeup call Tuesday, springing to life only after the teenage brother of his girlfriend nudged him awake.
The 34-year-old kissed his girlfriend Kristi Hannah goodbye, told her he loved her, and then left her East Windsor apartment for work at Hartford Distributors Inc. in Manchester, where he was to meet about 7 a.m. with company and union officials about allegations that he had stolen beer from the beverage wholesaler.
Within hours, he was lying dead on an office floor, having taken his own life as police closed in after a rampage that left eight co-workers dead and made him the biggest mass murderer in state history.
As police worked to unravel what caused Thornton to snap and randomly shoot co-workers as they fled out a back door into nearby woods or sought refuge under desks and other furniture, Hartford Distributors workers consoled each other as they learned who had made it out safely and who had not.
One of Thornton's victims described him as coolly pulling out a gun after the meeting and opening fire.
"He shot at me twice and hit me a couple times," Steve Hollander, chief operating officer of the family-owned business, told The Associated Press. "By just the grace of God, I don't know how he missed [killing] me."
Thornton then "went out on this rampage," Hollander said. "He was cool and calm. He didn't yell. He was cold as ice. He didn't protest when we were meeting with him to show him the video of him stealing. He didn't contest it. He didn't complain. He didn't argue. He didn't admit or deny anything. He just agreed to resign. And then he just unexplainably pulled out his gun and started blasting."
Thornton ran through the warehouse and loading dock area, where up to 40 people were loading cases of beer for morning deliveries, shooting some and letting others live — such as a handicapped woman helplessly sitting at her desk, pleading for her life.
"He ran right by me with the gun," one employee said. "I don't know why he didn't shoot me, too. People were pleading with him to put the gun down and to stop, but he was in his own world at that point."
Vinny Quattropani was at the warehouse, nearing the end of an overnight shift, when he greeted Thornton in a break area, said his father, Mark Quattropani, a 29-year veteran forklift operator for the company who was on vacation Tuesday.
The father said his 20-year-old son was loading beer onto a motorized jack when he saw Thornton about 30 feet away, near a loading dock.
"He saw Omar raising the gun in his direction, not at him, and heard shots," Mark Quattropani said. "He turned to look to see where he was shooting, then he saw Doug [Scruton] hanging off his forklift."
The dead included Bryan Cirigliano and Victor James, fellow drivers and union representatives who fought to save Thornton's job. Craig Pepin, another longtime driver and a soccer coach in his hometown of South Windsor, was killed when he called out to warn co-workers. Scruton and another man who worked in the warehouse, William Ackerman of South Windsor, were also fatally shot. Also killed was Edwin Kennison Jr. of East Hartford. Two victims remained unidentified late Tuesday.
Hollander suffered two gunshot wounds and was treated and released at Hartford Hospital. An unidentified employee remains in critical condition in the intensive care unit at Hartford Hospital.
Thornton killed "many good people today for absolutely no reason at all, people who've never said an unkind word to him," Hollander said. "He was just shooting at anyone that was near him, and just cruelty beyond cruelty."
"Ten seconds before he started shooting, if you had asked me, does he look like he's going to react in any way? I would have said no, he seems calm," Hollander said. "It makes no sense, the people he killed. Why would somebody do such a thing? They were his co-workers, they never … harmed him in any way."
"All of these people were at work, just trying to do their jobs," said Chris Roos, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 1035 in South Windsor.
John Hollis, a legislative liaison for the Teamsters union, said he had been told that Thornton was caught on a video camera in the warehouse stealing beer. Hollis said the purpose of the meeting was to confront Thornton. Cirigliano, the union president, had been "fighting tooth and nail for this guy to get another opportunity," Hollis said.
Manchester Police Chief Marc Montminy said that at the meeting, Thornton had been given the option of resigning or being fired and "was being escorted from the building when the shots rang out."
"At that point, he just snapped and just shot people around him. I think he just shot indiscriminately," said Hollis, who arrived at the warehouse about a half-hour after the shooting.
Thornton had with him a bag, which Hollis said must have contained the handgun. "That's not uncommon, for beer drivers to have a bag for their lunch … and to take their invoices along," Hollis said.
The shooting started shortly after 7:30 a.m. when there were 35 or 40 people in the office and warehouse, said Brett Hollander, the company's director of marketing. "Our shifts were just changing," Hollander said.
At the massive warehouse near the Manchester-South Windsor line, police dealt with a chaotic scene — employees fleeing, a fire inside the building caused when Scruton's forklift truck tipped over, dead and wounded people inside and outside the building and a gunman on the loose inside. The first officers to enter the building found what one described as " heart-breaking carnage."
Police from Manchester and several neighboring communities, including a SWAT team from East Hartford that had been in the midst of a training exercise, converged on the 77,000-square-foot building at 131 Chapel Road and immediately began searching for the gunman.
"The police entered with several different elements of a SWAT unit to clear the building," Montminy said. "They had searched the [warehouse] area and were starting to concentrate on the office area when they found the suspect dead of a gunshot wound." Police did not fire their weapons and Montminy said it appeared that Thornton had killed himself.
After the shootings, Thornton called his mother and told her he had shot some people, that he loved her and his girlfriend, and that he was sorry, said Joanne Hannah of Enfield, whose daughter dated Thornton for the past eight years.
Hannah said that Thornton, who is black, had complained about racial harassment at work. Hannah said that Thornton told her a racial epithet had been written and a noose drawn on a bathroom wall and that Thornton had taken photos of them with his cellphone.
Roos said that Thornton never filed a complaint about racial harassment with the union.
"There has never been a racial discrimination complaint made to the union and there has not been one made to any state or federal office that I'm aware of," Roos said.
Hollis said that the Hollander family "wouldn't tolerate that type of thing."
School buses transported employees away from the site about 9:30 a.m. to Manchester High School, where family and friends gathered and detectives interviewed witnesses and survivors. There were also counselors and clergy to assist family members and employees.
Longtime employee Doug Norwood said he was arriving for work when he saw people fleeing the building. Four co-workers leaped into his Jeep and told him to leave.
Norwood said he took one man home and then circled around a nearby shopping plaza with the others. As they drove, he said they listened to reports coming from inside Hartford Distributors via cellphone.
Norwood said he knew Thornton, but not well. Norwood, a driver who has worked for Hartford Distributors for 24 years, said he had tried to help Thornton adjust to the job when he first joined the company.
"He never really embraced the fraternal aspect of being a beer driver," Norwood said as he sat outside his Manchester home with a few friends Tuesday afternoon, contemplating the day's horror.
Norwood said he didn't know when he would be able to go back to work.
Thornton spent his life in and around East Hartford, Manchester and Hartford. Friends said he didn't smoke or drink and was close to his family. He had no criminal record and had only two speeding tickets, which caused his commercial driver's license to be suspended for three months in early 2009. He also possessed a valid pistol permit. He did experience financial trouble, including a personal bankruptcy in 2000.
Several political leaders, including U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-East Hartford, and Gov. M. Jodi Rell visited the scene Tuesday.
Larson, who is close to the Hollanders and some of the Teamsters officials, said "the Hollander family is one of the most venerated families in the Hartford area." The family has owned the business since 1955, when it was headed by Jules Hollander, father of current President Ross Hollander. His children, Brett and Samara Hollander, also work at the company, as does a cousin, Steve Hollander, who was wounded.
Hollis said that when he arrived at the scene, he stood with Ross Hollander, Roos and Larson. Hollis said the four men hugged each other as the enormity of the tragedy unfolded before them.
"The tears were flowing in all of our eyes," Hollis said. "We talked about some people who we knew for many years, who we knew had been shot. This is a tragedy that will never, never be totally understood."
— Staff writers Matthew Kauffman, Shawn Beals, Steve Goode, Jesse Leavenworth, Hilda Muñoz, Vanessa de la Torre, Christine Dempsey, Jon Lender, Eric Gershon, Ken Gosselin, Julie Stagis, Amanda Falcone, Dan Haar, Stephen Busemeyer, Andrew Julien, Rachel Lutzker, Tina Bachetti and Rosa Ciccio contributed to this story.
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