As Hartford Distributors prepares to reopen this week, beer deliveryman David Zylberman isn't sure he wants to go back.
"I don't even know if I can handle working again," said the 54-year-old Vernon resident. "I don't want to be behind [the wheel of] an 18-wheel trailer and start freaking out."
Recovering from an extreme episode of workplace violence — in this case, last week's mass murder of eight employees and the suicide of the killer, fellow employee Omar Thornton — isn't something most people ever face.
And experts say it is hard to predict how individual workers will react when they return to a place they now associate with fear, terror and loss. Business owners face the challenge of resuming normal operations while remaining sensitive to the grief and anxiety of employees.
"Going back to the site of where it happened is a trigger," said Mike Levinson, director of clinical services at Capitol Region Mental Health Center, which is run by the state. "People's response is not always predictable. Some will go back and not show visible effects and others will struggle."
Zylberman, a 34-year employee of Hartford Distributors in Manchester, stood nearby as one of eight co-workers was shot dead by another employee who later turned the gun on himself. Zylberman has made an appointment for grief counseling made available to company employees.
In 1998, Levinson was among the first counselors to aid workers at the Connecticut Lottery Corp., then in Newington, after a disgruntled accountant killed four top executives — chasing one down in a parking lot.
Until last week's shootings at the beer distribution warehouse, the Lottery murders were the worst incident of workplace violence in state history.
Levinson led a team of counselors that, over six weeks, treated individual employees and groups of them. The toughest part came at the beginning, he said, as employees continually replayed the horror of the shootings and their flight into the woods behind the headquarters' building.
"In any office where all of a sudden you're running through the woods, falling into the mud, it is so far out of the realm of experience, you're not prepared for it," Levinson said.
A similar scene unfolded last week as warehouse employees scattered amid the gunshots in Manchester, some hiding behind stacks of beer cases or under desks. One woman called 911 on her cellphone from inside a storage closet.
Levinson said talking about what happened — individually with a counselor or in a group, or with family and friends — is probably the best way to work through the trauma.
"Rather than going out and getting bombed, better to sit and talk with people about it," Levinson said.
Rare But Unforgettable
Workplace homicide has come to seem freakishly commonplace — it has happened at least three times in Connecticut in the past 15 months. It isn't always one employee killing another. Sometimes, the perpetrator walks in off the street.
That's what happened at the Red & Black Café in Middletown on May 6, 2009, when Wesleyan University student Johanna Justin-Jinich, a part-time employee, was shot and killed by an out-of-town acquaintance as she stood by the cash register. Stephen P. Morgan, a former Navy petty officer from Massachusetts, has been charged with murder and is awaiting trial.
Since Tuesday's massacre at Hartford Distributors, café co-owner Ed Thorndike, who was not present at the moment of Justin-Jinich's shooting, has listened as others try to fathom the latest tragic event.
"[They say] 'Oh, my god, can you imagine that?' " he said in an interview at the cafe. "Well, yes, I can."
Thorndike does not like talking about Justin-Jinich's death and turned down previous interview requests. After the Manchester disaster, he agreed to discuss his experience in the context of rehabilitating a workplace marred by brutality.
After Killings, Return To Workplace Is Difficult
Business owners, such as those at Hartford Distributors, Must Balance Resuming normal operations while remaining sensitive to the grief and anxiety all are feeling.
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