I’m having a hard time looking at social media today.
In the days, weeks, months and years after, we all used the phrase Never Forget. So today, 10 years removed from that overcast, frigid day in Omaha, of course countless media outlets and people are recounting where they were, what witnesses remember, and how we all feel about it now.
I guess I feel bad retweeting, sharing, posting because I was merely a storyteller that day, and not part of what happened. It’s like I don’t have the right to remind people of the anniversary. I remember the day after, Rob sitting in our story meeting and sharing what a first responder had told him… that in the hours after the massacre, standing inside of Von Maur, he could hear someone’s cell phone ringing, ringing, ringing, over and over… and he knew a victim’s loved one was on the other end. What I experienced that day was nothing.
The shooter had been in and out of juvenile courtrooms since he was a toddler. Court files several inches thick shed light on a troubled child, talking about death and violence from an early age, threatening the very people who loved him. From all indications (noted in this article from ABC News), his father did everything he could to help him, turning to the state for more than a quarter of a million dollars in therapy and services.
We went to their home that day. I worked with legendary photojournalist Pete Soby, and together, we knocked on the shooter’s father’s door. He opened the door, he listened, he said no comment. We returned to the car, and watched one reporter after another do the same thing we had just done. I remember then seeing that father and someone else come outside to shovel snow. Every photographer got out and got video of them.. just shoveling silently.
Later that day or early the next, we returned to that house. So many questions.. what happened to this young man? WHY did he do this? There had to be reasons.. why would he unleash this terror on complete strangers?? WHY??? We went back to that house for answers. Once again, we pulled up along the curb and parked.. and I broke down. I could not force myself to get out of that car. That man had also lost a loved one in the shootings, his son, coupled with the unimaginable weight of what his child had done. I could not knock on his door again.
Soby was a journalist with a rare gift: throughout his career he found the perfect balance of aggression and compassion. He knew what our responsibility was as journalists and how to get a story, but he never forgot people are human beings first, not faceless subjects in our work. He got out of the car and knocked on that door. When Pete came back, he told me after the father told him no comment, Pete suggested he tape a sign to his door with those words.. that people would stop knocking. A simple act of kindness I hope provided maybe an ounce of respite during such a horrific nightmare.
Every time my children and I see a firefighter or police officer, I try to make a point to encourage my boys to go up and tell them thank you, and to teach them these are people who go to work everyday to keep us safe. It deeply saddens me to say today’s current climate regarding mass shootings is more ‘common’ than it was ten years ago. Today, a mass shooting is a quick mention on CNN or nightly news, forgotten after a few days. In 2007, our city had never experienced anything like this before. When those calls started flooding 911, it was deputies, officers, and paramedics who moved in, risking their own lives and well being to help strangers. They saw the aftermath. They saw the nightmare. Once the adrenaline fades, once the threat is neutralized, how do you ever shake those images out of your memory?
I am grateful for every one of the heroes who moved in that day, not knowing what was in front of them. I am also grateful for every hero working right now in their cruiser, station or firehouse… because I know they’d move in to help me, too. And unfortunately, we all now know IT COULD HAPPEN.. to any of us.
To this day, I’m still surprised that Micky agreed to a TV interview about what happened to her inside of Von Maur that day, but honored she trusted us to share it. Now ‘retired’ photojournalist Justin Riviera and I arrived at her apartment, beautifully decorated with figurines and family pictures. It had only been a few months since the shootings.
Micky had almost died that day.. shot point blank inside Von Maur. I asked Micky if she made eye contact with the shooter; I guess I expected her to say no, it was all a blur. Chills went down my spine as she told us that he looked her straight in the eyes, then shot her in the abdomen.
Micky later wrote a book with author June Blair.
“The only thought that came to me in that surreal moment was to lie as still as I could. He was still shooting at every living, moving target. Suddenly, there was silence and then the helpless sounds of voices pleading for help. I mustered up every drop of strength left in my body as I, too, let out a garbled ‘help’.”
Micky’s book is entitled 35 Minutes and Counting (click here for details). She was on the floor for 35 minutes as first responders ensured the shooter was dead, evacuated the store, and found Micky lying on the floor of Von Maur, alive. For the rest of her life, Micky was in physical pain from her injuries, and emotional pain from what she had been through. She wrote Justin and I a letter after Fourth of July, noting how badly the fireworks affected her. She was such a kind, strong woman who had been through incredible challenges throughout her life.. she didn’t deserve this.
Micky passed away in 2016.
We stood there huddled together outside Von Maur. First there was one.. then a few.. then hundreds of bouquets of flowers blanketing the steps leading up to the doors. I don’t remember why we had gathered there, but I know there were family members throughout the crowd. I remember someone speaking (or trying to speak) and softly, it began. Silent Night.
Within moments, the entire crowd… reporters, photographers, city officials and police officers, loved ones of those lost, strangers… we were all singing Silent Night together.
It was so beautiful, one of the clearest memories I have from those days. The unity of the human spirit, joined together to support one another and to hold our broken spirits together.
I’d see the snowflakes later… thousands of them, handmade and plastered all over the walls separating Von Maur from the mall itself. This would become a symbol of support for the victims’ families.. showing them they weren’t alone in this tragedy.
I debated writing this because I don’t want to seem like I’m exploiting this anniversary, or this terrible day. But by not writing or posting anything, I fear worse.. that those most touched by this day will think I, and others, have forgotten. We will NEVER FORGET.
I will never forget the courage and bravery of our first responders.
I will never forget the strength of survivors like Micky Oldham and Fred Wilson.
Throughout my career in journalism, I never forgot about the compassion and balance I learned from my colleagues the day after and in the days that followed.
I will never forget the love that exists in all of us, even in the darkest of times.
For all of you touched by that day, especially those still suffering and hurting, my thoughts and prayers are with you today.