Forever Changed by Massacres
On the 6-month anniversary of the Pulse nightclub tragedy, an Orlando Sentinel Special Report examines the grief and the healing six other U.S. cities experienced following mass shootings
Story by Kevin Spear | Photographs by Joe Burbank
The grief is strikingly similar, no matter where the shooting happens.
It’s “people on their knees praying.”
It’s “weeping, wailing ... moaning.”
It’s “Satan was here.”
But what happens in the days, months, years — even decades — afterward? How does a city heal, and what does it learn?
A rallying cry, inevitably, after each shooting is: “It does not define us.” But maybe it does.
After the Pulse nightclub attack in June, Orlando Sentinel staff went to cities of the nation’s worst shootings to explore how the massacres changed them.
San Bernardino, Calif.; Charleston, S.C.; Aurora, Colo.; Newtown, Conn.; Blacksburg, Va.; and Denver’s suburb of Columbine were alike in their early months of grieving.
In time, each went a distinct way, depending on the circumstances of the crime and the essence of the community.
Choose a city or continue scrolling to read all
Married extremists kill 14 of husband's co-workers during health department holiday gathering
The shooting a year ago was a gut punch to a smog-plagued community struggling with crime, lack of jobs and self-worth. Closings of military bases and a steel plant sapped the economy. The desert city filed for bankruptcy in 2012.
Gathered for training and a holiday party, 14 San Bernardino County health workers were slaughtered by a colleague; 22 others were injured. The gunman and his wife, of Pakistani backgrounds, died in a hail of police fire. The FBI said foreign terrorists had inspired them.
Jorge Heredia and his co-workers had waited in an Amazon warehouse, many crying, in lockdown and within hearing of the shooting.
Afterward, mourners gathered near the scene, pinning remembrances to an industrial fence. A local artist drew “SB Strong” across an arrowhead, the shape of a natural landmark on a mountain above the city. The logo caught on instantly as empowering.
“It did bring people together,” Heredia said of the shooting. “But underneath that was this underbelly of confusion and angst.”
A year later, San Bernardino, Calif., is moving away from what had seemed to be a catalyst of shock and anger that would reverse the city’s ill fortune.
“Surviving this together was something that brought us together, made us into more of a community,” said City Clerk Gigi Hanna, passionate defender of her home. “But that’s not easy to sustain.”
Like Orlando, San Bernardino has a significant share of residents who think of their real homes as elsewhere.
“There is a huge part of our population that moved here because homes were less expensive,” said David Wert, San Bernardino County spokesman. “You have a lot of people who identify with where they came from — L.A. County, Orange County.”
But one group that was brought together was clergy, who united in response to acrimony over religion’s role in the attack.
That was especially so “among faith communities that had never had any contact with the Islamic community,” said Rabbi Hillel Cohn of Congregation Emanu El, formerly of San Bernardino and now in neighboring Redlands. “Some of that has continued.”
Amjad Khan, spokesman for Baitul Hameed Mosque in nearby Chino, said the attack inspired his congregation “to show what true Islam stands for” and how attackers followed an “ugly perversion of the faith.”
Yet even those closest to the tragedy think time and circumstance have made “SB Strong” seem more like a wish than reality.
Corwin Porter, assistant county health director, escaped wounds in the attack. He said support remains unwavering from the county-government family and even health workers nationally. But survivors wonder about their community, he said.
“People have a tendency to jump back into their lives and to move forward, and that’s one of the concerns I’ve heard,” Porter said. “I’ve heard from a few of our folks who have basically said, ‘We hope we are not forgotten.’”
Avowed white supremacist charged with shooting 9 worshippers to death at historic African-American church in heart of Charleston
You can’t be in Charleston and not be struck by where it happened.
A 21-year-old avowed supremacist from South Carolina went to the heart of the city and to Bible study in the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. When the shooting stopped, the pastor and eight others were dead or dying.
Painted entirely white, Mother Emanuel, as the steepled church is called, rises into the skyline as a beacon for a living memorial. It’s separated only by a sidewalk from Calhoun Street and is blocks from anywhere Charleston tourists would typically want to go.
This summer, they walked up to the church every few minutes, often for photos, including selfies, although there was little suggesting the “Emanuel Nine” tragedy or how it opened wider wounds.
Unlike ever-churning Orlando, Charleston — a leading slave port and now a top tourism destination — devotes itself to sense of place and history. In South Carolina’s steamy Low Country, the city preserves and profits from antebellum legacy. Residents not born there are described as “off” from somewhere else.
But the two cities are a match in mass murder. Many in the black community of Charleston and in the gay community of Orlando have no doubt the shooting victims were targeted for who they were.
In the Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook shootings, the attackers’ mental illnesses were blamed.
In Charleston and Orlando, “they died because of hatred,” said Princess Hollis, College of Charleston student and member of the LGBTQ justice group Southerners on New Ground.
For Charleston Area Justice Ministry, an association of 30 churches, the shooting must be a defining point in the city’s history.
“We are talking about redemption, to redeem not only Emanuel Nine but the institution of slavery that just permeates life here,” said Danny Reed, minister at the Unitarian Church in Charleston, one of the association’s members.
Immediately after the massacre, Charleston braced for a race riot.
But in court two days later, victims’ families forgave the alleged assailant, an act so compelling the church and city were nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
“How can you not honor that? It changed everything,” said Marjory Wentworth, poet laureate of South Carolina and an author of the book “We Are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel.”
“It became this sort of transcendent grace that permeated everything after that,” Wentworth said.
But others, black and white, only saw further injustice.
Jon Hale, a College of Charleston history professor, said the city feared violence: “The narrative that I thought was shoved on Charleston was one of unity and then, of course, of forgiveness.”
Charles Heyward, retired Presbyterian minister, said African Americans did not erupt because under a history of repression “everybody knows their place.”
“The families offering their forgiveness right up front, I just think that’s part of understanding our place,” Heyward said.
The narrative that I thought was shoved on Charleston was one of unity and then, of course, of forgiveness.
— Jon Hale, College of Charleston history professor
There is growing regret that memory of Emanuel Nine endures even as its potency for change fades.
State Rep. Wendell Gilliard said his city is getting back to “business as usual and it’s dangerous.”
Added Ansley Pope of Southerners on New Ground: “It’s going to take a lot more than a year and a massacre to make people want to shift and change their minds.”
Holding a longer view is Joe Riley, mayor during the shooting. After 10 terms, he is retired and teaching at the Citadel, the Charleston military college he attended.
He is intent on fulfilling a proposal of his several years ago to build an African-American museum at the waterfront where slaves disembarked.
Driving him is the pain of the church victims’ families — “of weeping, wailing, of moaning” — that has not left him.
“For however long I live, the sounds, you know, that humans express,” Riley said, closing his eyes, as his words echoed emotions he described. “Despair, heartbreak and disbelief in so many different ways.”
Newtown resident, 20, with history of mental illness kills 20 children and 6 staff at elementary school
Newtown, Conn., seems more compact than its population of 28,000 would suggest. The New England village snuggles privately in thick woods, a long commute from urban threats.
Sandy Hook Elementary is in its own sanctuary, beyond a firehouse at the end of a narrow road and hidden by a curtain of trees.
It was there that a 20-year-old local resident shot his way through a school window. He had murdered his mother that morning, taking from her a military-style rifle. The attacker killed 20 children, six staff and, finally, himself.
The children were 6 and 7 years old.
It hurt us in a way that nothing else could have
— Patricia Llodra, Newtown’s First Selectman
The five minutes of violence shattered confidence that the close community of Sandy Hook could raise families in a safe environment.
“It hurt us in a way that nothing else could have,” said Patricia Llodra, Newtown’s First Selectman, a mayor-like position.
Four years later, the town’s cohesiveness has preserved the bonds of tragedy.
Of 20 families of the slain children, only one has left, a move that had been planned before the shooting. From Llodra and others, it’s evident the town has gained toughness. They call it resilience.
But, said Monsignor Robert Weiss, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church, daily conversation can be a word or two from despair.
“There are some who want to get past this, there are some who are still living in it, and there are some still trying to understand and cope with it,” said Weiss, an alum of Bishop Moore Catholic High School in Orlando.
The Monsignor and St. Rose of Lima rose to the agony, conducting nonstop funerals and responding to an avalanche of sympathy.
“I would say our parish alone received well over a half-million cards, letters, prayer chains, diaries, rosaries,” Weiss said. “Our house, you couldn’t even walk through the hallways.”
Another force is Llodra, former Sandy Hook teacher and the town’s chief executive then and today. She is guarded, analytical and vigilant for a new normal.
“We have to accept that our brains are rewired,” Llodra said. “Those of us who were closest to the event, the most impacted, probably have the most change in our brains. So we need to understand who we are, that we process things a little bit differently.”
Mary Ann Jacob was one of the closest to the tragedy. A library clerk, she hid with 19 children as gunshots rang out. Afterward, more horror was revealed.
“It became very evident almost immediately that two complete classes were pretty much all missing,” Jacob said.
Now processing her world differently, she is a passionate activist for gun safety and control.
“My sons and my husband are lovers of shooting sports; they do archery, they belong to a local club and I’m an elected Republican,” Jacob said.
After the shooting, Nicole Hockley and Mark Barden were determined to change a nation’s behavior.
They founded Sandy Hook Promise, which teaches students and staff to recognize and respond to warnings of violence. Having connected with a million students nationwide, SHP partnered this fall with Miami-Dade County schools, the nation’s fourth-largest district.
There is no end to research, speeches and managerial tasks. The two scrimp on time for meals, sleep and the grief counseling they know they should be getting.
Hockley lost her 6-year-old son, Dylan. Barden lost his 7-year-old, Daniel.
“It took the ultimate loss, the ultimate tragedy for us to finally wake up say ‘we have to do something,’” Barden said. “I’m not proud of that.”
Torn down and rebuilt, Sandy Hook Elementary reopened this fall.
Driving down the road past the volunteer firehouse, which has 26 copper stars on its roof for the victims, parents now drop off their kids at a setting that is lively and cheerful, not like the town’s lingering sorrow.
Attacker pleads insanity after fatally shooting 12 and wounding 70 during a midnight movie
On anniversaries of the theater shooting that killed 12 people and wounded 70, Todd Ponton and Jeremy Barber erect a dozen crosses, each with a red heart and victim’s photo, along a busy road near the site of the attack.
Last year, many people lingered at the impromptu memorial, the two area residents said.
“This year, nothing,” said Ponton, watching as a young woman in tears sat on a sidewalk in front of a cross, one of few visitors during a 30-minute span.
With a population of 350,000, Aurora is larger than Orlando and other cities Sentinel staff visited. Its metro area, which includes Denver, has 2.8 million residents.
Aurora lacks a downtown skyline and is mostly suburban. What residents tend to note about the city is not cohesiveness but diversity, with 133 languages spoken in public schools.
At the attacker’s trial last year, it took the judge an hour to read 165 verdicts of guilty, resulting in a life sentence for each murder and more than 3,000 years for attempted murders. The courtroom cheered.
Chelsea Sobolik was with friends in the theater, and some were wounded.
She recalls “victory moments,” such as getting out of bed days after the attack and going to a movie a year after.
With the trial over, her healing continues, and Sobolik is considering a career in victim advocacy.
“People tend to forget about things that aren’t making media buzz anymore,” she said. “It makes people who were affected feel like everybody has forgotten about them.”
The nonprofit Aurora Mental Health Center teamed with the city a year after the shooting to open the Aurora Strong Resilience Center. Theater survivors are not charged for therapy.
“An event at a nightclub or at a theater impacts people from all across the community, all across the city, probably all across the state and certainly, in our case, all across the country,” said Kirsten Anderson, a center coordinator.
“In our case, and I presume Orlando’s as well, it was really nice to create a space where all those folks could gather and where they felt at home and could support each other.”
A center brochure, explaining services and who is welcome, refrains from mentioning the shooting.
“We are looking at the long term,” Anderson said.
The fourth anniversary of the shooting was marked this year with a ceremony at the Great Lawn of the impressive Aurora Municipal Center. The ceremony was upbeat and the evening was pleasant, if misty at times. Faith leaders and first responders went to the microphone. Music was played and victim names were read in a dramatic fashion.
In all, about 150 people attended the evening event, not quite two for each casualty. Neither the mayor nor police chief appeared.
A half-mile away, colorful signage of the theater where the shooting took place glowed against a darkening sky. The multi-screen complex, an island in a vast parking lot, reopened six months after the attack.
University senior chains doors shut during a morning of campus shootings that leave 32 dead and 17 wounded
Renee Cloyd gives the impression she has found, not lost, her way with grief. She is calm, adroit and frank. If you live in Blacksburg, Va., you probably know her.
Her daughter, Austin, nine days from turning 19, was among the first fatally shot in a classroom and the only victim from Blacksburg.
“Austin is my mark on the world,” Cloyd said. “I hope to live healthy until I’m 92. But if I die tomorrow, then I’ve done my thing.”
Her daughter grew up volunteering, including with Appalachia Service Project, repairing homes of the region’s poorest.
After Austin died, her parents immersed themselves in volunteering. Her father, Bryan, a Tech professor, enlisted students and went to Haiti to build a school and a bridge.
Both Cloyds led Tech students in Appalachia Service Project trips, recruiting then-Gov. Tim Kaine and his wife to pitch in.
They helped launch the university’s VT Engage, connecting students with community service.
My faith allows me to say Satan was here that day. ... God turned that and made something good of it.
— Renee Cloyd, whose daugther Austin was killed at Virginia Tech
They invested the money they got from the survivors’ fund in a scholarship in their daughter’s name. Recipients have worked with soy milk in Kenya, Syrian refugees in Germany and clean water in Virginia.
“We’ve had people say to us, ‘we are proud of how you are handling it,’” said Cloyd, who then offered her belief they were part of something much larger.
“My faith allows me to say Satan was here that day. Before this happened, I wasn’t big on talking about Satan,” she said. “However, God turned that and made something good of it.”
The school is storied and acclaimed, and western Virginia’s fame, joy and a primary employer. Its home, Blacksburg, sits picturesquely in the lap of canopied mountains and far from the cultural gravity of a big city.
The school and town are inseparable from the shooting, in which a student chained doors shut as he killed 32 people and wounded 17 others before taking his own life.
Students from the time of the shooting have moved on. One, however, is an unflinching, unforgettable tie to the tragedy, say those who encounter her.
“I had never heard gunshots before, and your mind is trying to place and figure out what is happening,” said Kristina Anderson, speaking about chaos in her sophomore French class.
“I often describe it as an ax being taken to a piece of wood.”
The classroom was on the second floor of a building with doors the attacker chained shut. Anderson was shot when the rampage began and then twice more.
“He came back again, and that was very scary because the first time was so, so quick … but the second time there was more time between the shots. As I’m sitting there, kind of laying there, panting, almost going between opening my eyes and closing them, you’re hoping he doesn’t see you, you’re hoping that it’s not going to be you, and he shot me in the lower back.”
Anderson directs the nonprofit Koshka Foundation for Safe Schools that she founded to ensure memory of the massacre continues in “meaningful ways.” In telling her story, pegging it to safety initiatives, she seeks to thwart violence “years before it happens.”
There are many small and large instances of the spirit of volunteering in Blacksburg in the aftermath of the attack.
John Welch’s French teacher was killed. Mired in grief, he created Teach for Madame, organizing Tech students for French instruction in grade schools. Welch graduated as the program expanded.
New River Valley Leading Lights was founded in response to the shooting to recognize volunteers in Blacksburg and surrounding towns.
Giving of “time and talent” was remarkable then and Leading Lights continues to grow, said Kymn Davidson-Hamley, local United Way director.
The meaning of the massacre, she said, became thought of as a call to show up and help.
“When you say ‘Virginia Tech’ and you just see people, that [shooting] is what they remember,” Davidson-Hamley said. “It’s not what we think of first.”
The university was roiled by lawsuits alleging failures to protect students.
One of Tech’s best known professors, Lucinda Roy, wrote “No Right to Remain Silent,” a book detailing her unsuccessful efforts to get the university to address the mental health of the student who would turn out to be the attacker.
Controversies have eased; the school’s alert system was overhauled and doors can no longer be chained.
The school renovated the building, Norris Hall, where most deaths occurred, removing classrooms to establish the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention.
If there was no other reminder, memory of tragedy is unavoidable for new students and visiting parents. In the heart of the stately campus is an evocative memorial.
Rampage by high school seniors kills 13 and wounds 21 during an attack that includes failed propane bombs
A mile high and still dwarfed by towering Rockies, the suburban community of Columbine High School in Jefferson County feels enlivened by scenery and mountain breezes. It also is at peace with its tragedy.
A dozen students and a teacher were killed, and 21 were wounded when two seniors went on a rampage and then killed themselves.
Carolyn Mear’s son, a sophomore, escaped injury by hiding in a cafeteria closet. The tragedy compelled her to earn a doctorate. She is now a Denver University professor, writing and speaking about community trauma, something she experienced intimately while waiting with families for word of her son.
“There were people crying, sobbing, there were people catatonic, there were people angry, there were people on their knees praying,” Mears said. “I thought, ‘this is what it is like to be human. This is a world I never knew, this incredible uncertainty: Is my son alive or dead?’”
After 17 years, Columbine is ordinary and middle class, Mears said, and not broken by tragedy.
“I don’t want to say we embraced it. That sounds too positive,” Mears said. “It is part of what the Columbine community is.”
Columbine wasn’t the first mass shooting, but the massacre ushered in an era of news spreading while sirens are wailing.
The tragedy was examined for links to violent video games, Goth culture, bullying by jocks, inept parenting and missed warnings.
“How did we not know?” said Frank DeAngelis, who was principal then and travels widely to speak on school safety.
“When I give a profile of the demographics of Columbine, people respond: ‘I’m amazed; your school is just like ours,’” he said. “We were a community of a lot of parental support, low crime and you would never expect something like this.”
The attack provoked changes in police tactics and fostered efforts to prevent or respond to such violence. It has also made Columbine a focal point of how to deal with shootings.
Educators from across the U.S. join a symposium each summer at Columbine brought about by an attack in 2006 at Platte Canyon High School, less than an hour from Columbine.
A gunman held seven girls hostage and killed one, Emily Keyes, after she texted “I love u guys” to her parents.
They founded “I Love U Guys” Foundation, which provides emergency protocols for schools nationwide.
The symposium gets emphasis at lunch in the Columbine cafeteria, where the attackers had planted propane bombs that didn’t explode.
The first shot to death was Rachel Scott, 17.
Her father started Rachel’s Challenge, based on a “code of ethics” she wrote weeks before her death that included her belief an act of compassion can start a chain reaction of compassion.
The program, with a $5 million annual budget, goes to 1,000 schools a year in nearly all states to lessen bullying and foster a “culture of kindness.”
“We don’t tell students what to do,” said Rob Unger, chief executive officer. “We tell the story of young lady who made a huge difference in lives.”
Days after Aurora’s shooting, the Rebels Project group was born. Its name is from Columbine’s mascot, a Rebel.
A founder, Heather Egeland, was a student at Columbine. She escaped physically unharmed; it would be years before she grappled with emotional wounds.
After the Aurora attack, a friend texted: “What do you think about starting a group for survivors?”
“We had to turn people away” from the first meeting, said Egeland, a teacher who exudes friendly confidence, even while describing how post-traumatic stress can leave her unnerved by tasks such as grocery shopping.
Rebels Project has hundreds of members from nearly a dozen shootings nationwide, including Sherrie Lawson. She lived through the Washington Navy Yard attack in 2013, when a shooter killed 12 people and wounded 3.
When Lawson went back to work: “Every morning before I walked into that building I would be in tears.”
“We weren’t really encouraged to discuss it,” Lawson said. “It was kind of like ‘don’t talk about it. Suck it up, get back to work, we’re Navy, we’re strong.’”
Egeland said Rebels Project is an ongoing discussion among people who know and listen.
“If you are survivor of a mass tragedy, then you are welcome.”
Shooting by radicalized security guard kills 49 victims, making the city the site of the nation's deadliest modern shooting.
The Pulse shooting was the nation’s deadliest. How it will be remembered, and will the community come together or drift apart?
Orlando is defined by people from elsewhere and not deeply rooted, as are San Bernardino and Aurora. In those cities, the memory of the massacres appears less resolute.
Newtown, of “faith, family and friends,” said Monsignor Weiss, defines close-knit. Blacksburg is a connected, informed college town. If your parents aren’t from Charleston, some residents say, you are nearly an outsider. Memory has solid footing in those places.
But as healing communities have taken on sweeping issues of gun control and safer schools, Orlando, like Charleston, has been challenged with addressing something more finite: its own identity.
Thousands in Orlando heard a call to action during a candlelight vigil one week after the Pulse shooting.
“We cannot sit by and lose any more lives to senseless acts of violence,” said Orange County Mayor
Nearly five months later, at Orlando’s Come Out With Pride celebration in November, Pulse was spoken of by many as a reminder that bigotry endures but also as perhaps an awakening.
With the Pride parade about to start, Richard Vergara arrived in an Uber cab four blocks from crowded Lake Eola Park. He got out to walk, wearing a rainbow tank top and assorted bead necklaces. An Orlando policeman on a bike immediately rode up to him.
“He asked me if I would like an escort,” Vergara said, astonished and grateful for the gesture of concern. “That would have never happened a few years ago.”