Learning from the Survivors

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Killeen, Texas -- This is a killing ground as seen through the lens of a video camera.

There is a blue Ford pickup truck, passenger door ajar, parked in the dining area. Tables and chairs are overturned. Shards of glass are sprinkled on a carpet. Purses and shoes are scattered. A middle-aged woman lies motionless, her fingers inches from a cellular telephone. She is dead.

There are other murder victims. A woman, face pressed against a wall, lying under a metal serving line that holds trays laden with plates of food. A man and woman, his arm around her waist. More bodies by a wall, under tables, under chairs.

And in a corner, just outside the men's room, the lone killer, his face, like those of the people he murdered, covered by a cloth napkin.

On Oct. 16, 1991, 35-year-old George "Jo Jo" Hennard crashed his pickup truck through the front of Luby's Cafeteria, and then walked through a noontime lunch crowd, shouting "This is what Bell County has done to me," while shooting rounds from a Glock 9mm semiautomatic pistol.

In all, he would kill 23 people and wound 14 others before turning a gun on himself, ending the worst mass slaying by gunfire in U.S. history.

For the survivors of Killeen, though, the incident was more than just an image on a videotape.

"If you want to know what the survivors went through, then you have to begin with this," said Bruno Matarazzo, head of the Killeen Police Department's Crime Victim Assistance unit, after viewing a two-minute slice of color videotape.

These were ordinary citizens of small-town America. People like Suzanna Gratia, whose lunch-time family gathering ended with the death of her parents. And Dee Leasure, who crawled wounded from underneath the body of her best friend, and for months after, was haunted by nightmares and feelings of guilt. And Tommy Vaughn, whose selfish act became the stuff of heroism.

They and others were forced to come to grips with what is in essence an American phenomenon -- the gunman who terrorizes a public place, leaving behind not just bodies, but brutalized survivors.

From Kenosha, Wis,. to San Francisco, individuals and communities have been touched in recent months by gunmen who turn a fast-food restaurant, a diner, a post office, a library, a fitness center, or a law office into a scene of horror.

While memories of those incidents remain fresh and raw, it is the Killeen murder-spree that provides a textbook look into the psyche of the survivors.

How do you survive while others perish? How do you go on with living after coming face to face with dying? How do you venture out into public after having stared into the face of a murderer? These are questions that hundreds now face.

No one keeps exact figures, but Jack Levin, a sociology professor at Northeastern University, estimates 20 to 30 multiple killings occur each year in the United States, involving 200 to 300 victims. The numbers account for only a fraction of the nearly 24,000 homicides annually in this country.

"This is still a rare phenomenon, but, yes, it's growing," said Mr. Levin, co-author with James Alan Fox of "Mass Murder: America's Growing Menace."

Bulletproof glass and metal detectors can be installed. Employers can more closely monitor disaffected employees. But in an open society, where semi-automatic weapons are plentiful, sudden, unpredictable mass murder in public places can and does happen.

How do you survive?

Listen to the experts. Listen to the victims of Killeen.

*

What Suzanna Gratia remembers most vividly about the day she went to Luby's for lunch, the day her parents died, was this: She wasn't packing her handgun.

The .38-caliber Smith & Wesson that she normally tucked into her purse was sitting in her car. In Texas, it's a misdemeanor to carry a concealed handgun, and Ms. Gratia did not want to imperil her license as a chiropractor.

Besides, who would think that a Bosses' Day trip to the most popular restaurant in Killeen, a central Texas city of 70,000 hard by Fort Hood, could lead to death?

"I guarantee that I could have saved my parents that day," she said. "He [Hennard] was up, I was down. I had the perfect place to prop my arm. Fifteen feet away. I was totally calm. Totally. Don't ask me that stupid question,'Could you have done it?' Oh, shoot, yes."

Ms. Gratia, 34, has a plain-spoken bluntness that propelled her into becoming an unofficial spokeswoman for the 162 diners and workers who were in Luby's the afternoon of the siege. She has been interviewed by Maury Povich and Geraldo Rivera, and featured on "48 Hours."

Always, she speaks up for the right of citizens to bear arms.

Ms. Gratia says that she survived the ordeal of the shooting intact. That she needed no counseling. That she picked up with the rest of her life.

But as she speaks of those moments in Luby's, she gets off her chair and crouches, appearing to relive the incident. And even as her voice stays level, her hands shake.

"It's a help to talk about it," she said. "You kind of talk about it enough to get over it."

On that day, Ms. Gratia would watch as her father, Al, 72, a retired owner of a heavy equipment company, was shot while trying to wrest the gun from Hennard. Eventually, Ms. Gratia fled the restaurant through a hole in a plate-glass window, while her ++ mother, Ursula, 67, would stay behind, shot dead while cradling her husband.

In the days following her parents' murder, Ms. Gratia had nightmares about the gunman. But she had no flashbacks, no signs of guilt that she survived while others did not. But as with most victims, she was plagued by the nagging sense that had she only done more, the outcome would have been different.

"Everyone has something to be ashamed of, and no one is ever satisfied with their performance," said Jeff Mitchell, an emergency health services professor at University of Maryland Baltimore County and director of the International Critical Incident and Stress Foundation.

"Even those who are heroic will say, 'I should have done more,' " he added.

Two years later, Ms. Gratia says she is living well. An Arabian horse farm she opened before the shooting is now in full bloom. The first foal was born last spring. But there are nights, especially in the warmth of the summer, when she misses her parents, misses those times playing cards and grilling steaks.

"I've always felt like you've got a choice," she said. "You can dwell on it and be miserable and go insane. Or you can get over it and get on with it. I've gotten on with living."

*

In Dee Leasure's two-bedroom apartment, not a mile from Luby's, are the mementos from a massacre.

Newspaper clippings detailing the attack are packed into a drawer with the hundreds of cards and letters she received while hospitalized. Another manila envelope contains the daily physical rehabilitation exercises she followed for a year. And on a fireplace mantle is the picture of her co-worker, her friend, Glenn Spivey, 55.

He died.

She survived.

Mrs. Leasure's body has healed from the bullet wounds she received. Only a slight quarter-inch scar remains on her left cheek. Her left hip, shattered by a bullet, has been pieced together with two pins and a screw.

But speaking of those moments in Luby's remains difficult for her. She aches for the loss of a friend. She is angry that she can no longer walk into a restaurant or a shopping mall without first checking for exits, without somehow thinking of the attack. She admits that she has become overprotective toward her two teen-age daughters.

And for months after the attack, she had trouble sleeping, haunted by nightmares.

"If someone would tell me about time being a healer, I would scream at them," said Mrs. Leasure, 33, born in Germany and married to an ex-U.S. soldier. "But time is the best healer. I used to just wish, though, that time would hurry up."

Mrs. Leasure and Mr. Spivey, co-workers at the Quail Creek Apartments, came to Luby's that day for the fried okra. But they never even set their trays down on the table.

"I was shot in the cheek before I even sat down," Mrs. Leasure said.

She was knocked flat to the ground, with Mr. Spivey huddled close by. They waited as Hennard made his way through the restaurant, firing off rounds, killing innocents, finally, killing Mr. Spivey.

Wounded, her friend dead, Mrs. Leasure panicked and attempted to run across the back of the cafeteria to a middle-aged woman.

And she was shot again. In the hip. Waiting out the siege, she kept repeating, "I don't want to die."

She was fortunate. Her wounds were serious, but not life-threatening. She would walk again. She would rebuild her facial muscles.

It would take her a longer time to rebuild her confidence.

"The therapists told me I would go through a roller-coaster of emotions," she said. "And I have."

The emotional experience Mrs. Leasure endured was encountered by others.

There was guilt mixed with rage, loss of sleep, nightmares, and finally, acceptance.

For Mrs. Leasure, the last step toward recovery came when she could finally accept the fact that she lived and Mr. Spivey died.

"I know Glenn forgave me," she said. "He was dear to me, and I loved him. But why didn't I stay with him after he died? All I know is that I did not want to be with death around me. I left him. I know that. But he also left me."

Life, for Mrs. Leasure, is returning to normal. She works. She watches her children. She lives.

"Sometimes, I want to slap myself," she said. "It's like I've gotten a second chance, but, why am I so ungrateful? But you can't pity yourself. There are people who care about you and love you. Life will go on. It doesn't matter if it's with you or without you. But if it's with you, then you can make life better."

*

Tommy Vaughn sleeps soundly. No nightmares. No flashbacks. Never even been to see a psychotherapist.

"I'm back to my same old routine," said Mr. Vaughn, 30, a mechanic at the local Mazda dealership. " 'Bout this time of year, you'll find me hunting and fishing. And now, I'm going to church pretty much every Sunday. For some reason, I just feel the need to go."

Mr. Vaughn doesn't like it when folks call him hero, but in one brief instant, amid chaos and gunfire and death, he made a difference.

While others froze, while others waited for Hennard to aim and fire, Mr. Vaughn ran scared, plunging through a double plate glass window at the rear of Luby's.

He was the man-mountain, 6 feet 6, 325 pounds, the one who opened a hole that Suzanna Gratia and 30 others streamed through to safety.

"It's called self-preservation," he said. "The first thing that clicks is to save yourself. It's one thing to run in a burning house to bring someone out. That's a hero. Breaking a window -- I did that for myself. I didn't carry 'em outta there. I had the size to get through the window. Everyone who ran out that window did it just like I did."

There is no survivor's guide to mass murder, no fail-safe way to protect life and limb. And no grand lessons were learned from the Luby's tragedy, to help others avert similar fates in similar situations.

"You can train for scenario after scenario," said Officer Matarazzo of the Killeen police force. "But how can you train for someone driving 35 miles and driving a pickup truck through a double glass window? People actually approached the vehicle to assist the driver. You either fight, you take flight, or you freeze."

Mr. Vaughn ran because all of his instincts as a hunter made him realize instantly that Hennard was firing a gun.

"If it happened again, I don't know what I'd do," he said. "You don't plan for something like this. At that point in time, running through a window was all I could think of doing."

Mr. Vaughn was one of the few who emerged virtually unscathed from a massacre.

In Killeen, they would bury the dead and heal the sick. They would even reopen Luby's, with smaller windows up front, and brass fans and plants hanging from the ceiling.

And those caught in the gunfire would move on with their lives.

One couple in Luby's that day later married. Another woman, five months pregnant, later gave birth to a healthy girl. Some survivors turned toward religion. Dozens joined a local chapter of People Against Violent Crime.

Not all has gone well, of course.

"There have been family breakups," said Jill Hargrove, a victim assistance coordinator of the Bell County District Attorney's office. "Parent-child relationships have changed. Some for the good. Some for the bad. And there have been some deaths in the families, deaths that certainly bring back all the memories."

And there has been a loss of freedom, too. Freedom to just come and go in restaurants, to walk the town without fear of attack.

"There's no way your life will ever be the same," Mrs. Hargrove said. "You can't ever go back and say, 'This did not happen to me.' "

Mr. Vaughn is one who refuses to dwell on the past. He had a brief flurry of fame, appearing on national television programs, accompanying Vice President Dan Quayle on a 1992 campaign trip. Over and over he repeated his story, and, in a way, underwent therapy, purging the memories of those minutes in Luby's.

Autumn has descended on the flatlands of Texas. The air is cooler and the sky is clearer. For many of the victims, these are days filled with dread, a reminder that a second anniversary has come and gone. But for Mr. Vaughn, the chill air means it's hunting season.

"You have to get outside," Mr. Vaughn said. "If you can't go in public, then the guy who did the killing won again. Be happy. And live life to its fullest."

Bill Glauber is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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