1 year later: Recollections, and pain, from those who survived Kirkwood shootings
By Stephen Deere, Elizabethe Holland and Doug Moore
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
The silver-gray handgun looked like a prop to Cindy Burquin, just part of another stunt by her former high school classmate. She watched him raise the .44-caliber revolver, expecting a flag with the word Bang! to unfurl.
Even after the first shot, she tried to rationalize the moment.
Those have to be blanks. He's just trying to scare the City Council.
But the bloodied police officer was lifeless in the chair, and people in the council chambers were diving out of the way, screaming. Burquin found herself on the floor, wondering if she should stand up.
Maybe I should talk to him. Maybe he'll listen. Maybe he'll stop shooting.
People ducked under desks and chairs, ran from the room, curled into fetal positions. Many could hear the gunman's breathing between the shots.
They had come to Kirkwood City Hall focused on a proposed medical building, zoning ordinances, contracts for wireless service and other minutiae of municipal government.
Suddenly, they were moments away from losing everything.
Ken Yost, the public works director, was the second person in the room to be shot. Then two council members and Mayor Mike Swoboda.
Burquin couldn't comprehend what was happening. She looked across the floor and saw her missing shoe. She thought about the expensive orthotics inside it.
I have to get that shoe.
But then the gunman's black jeans appeared at her feet. She pressed her face against the carpet and covered her head with her hands.
If I don't look, he won't see me. If I cover my eyes, he can't see me.
Another volley of gunfire followed. A police officer began asking who was injured and motioning people out of the room.
The gunman, Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton, lay motionless near the dais.
Forty-two other people attended the meeting or were about to enter the chambers on Feb. 7, 2008. Thirty-eight would survive that night.
For many, normal had been shattered. Their worlds split in two life before the attack and life after.
And with survival came endless questions.
What if ...?
"I had tremendous guilt about not getting up and saying, 'Cookie don't do this,'" Burquin said.
What should I have ...?
"Some people after it happened said, 'Well, if I was there, I would have done this, or I would have done that,'" Deputy Mayor Tim Griffin said. "What I say is, 'You have no idea. You have no idea.'"
One year later, some survivors say they are moving forward; the memories linger, but don't overwhelm. For others, life has become a search for a new normal.
"I don't know if you can ever really heal," said Claire Budd, the city's former public information officer. "It's just getting used to a new world. It's like saying, 'You can't go home.'"
City Attorney John Hessel was at his daughter's wedding reception, preparing to give the toast.
Just before he began to speak, he saw someone enter the room.
Charles Thornton was walking among the guests, wearing the same black jeans and leather jacket he did the night of the attack. Hessel watched in horror as Thornton pulled out a gun and started shooting.
The dream about his daughter's wedding last summer was just one way his mind struggled with what he had seen. For months after the shooting, Hessel had explosions of energy, his three-mile afternoon runs turning into six miles.
"I'd run for miles without even trying," he said. "I'd run twice as far and it felt like it was nothing."
Alan Hopefl was a fixture at city meetings, chronicling city issues for a mass e-mail sent to residents and others. Of all the people in the room that night, Hopefl thought he would be immune to the effects of trauma. He had taught medical therapeutics to staff in an intensive-care unit at St. Louis University Hospital. He had seen people die.
But three months after Thornton's rampage, Hopefl found that when he tried to leave Kirkwood's city limits, he was gripped by anxiety. His appetite would vanish; he was beset by waves of sadness.
"I was used to people dying, but those were people that I didn't really know that well, and there wasn't any violence involved," he said.
Todd Smith, a reporter for the Suburban Journals, was covering the meeting when Thornton attacked. A bullet that passed through Yost struck Smith in the hand, requiring two surgeries. He still catches himself rubbing the plastic joint doctors put in his thumb.
And he can't shake the memory of Thornton's face.
"I just saw complete hate."
Time changed that night, slowed until seconds separated those who would live from those who would die.
John Mullen was at the meeting to oppose a medical building planned in his neighborhood. He saw Officer Tom Ballman reach for his gun as Thornton was about to shoot. Mullen remembered the moment in slow motion.
"All he needed was one second more," Mullen said.
Just. One. More. Second.
"If you don't think five seconds is an eternity ... put your hand in boiling water," Mullen said.
Hessel crouched under the desk on the dais with council members Art McDonnell and Ignatius "Iggy" Yuan. Hessel listened as Thornton, getting closer by the moment, methodically gunned down his colleagues.
"I was aware of every second," Hessel said.
Then something urged him to get up.
You've got to move right now.
Hessel jumped over Yost's body, began picking up heavy plastic chairs and throwing them at Thornton, shouting, "Don't! Don't! Don't!"
Thornton pursued Hessel, who was able to get out of the room. Police officers arrived at the chambers and killed Thornton. Yuan knows what would have happened had Hessel stayed put.
"I was the next guy to go," he said.
And then there was Sgt. William Biggs, who, in his final moments, saved lives. Biggs was in a parking lot near City Hall when Thornton shot him and stole his gun. At some point, Biggs pressed an alarm button on his radio, alerting officers.
"Every second in that room was just amazing and life-saving to a certain extent," Yuan said. "Every second."
If there were seconds when time was a thief, there were moments when time seemed to give.
Murray Pounds, Kirkwood's director of parks and recreation, turned 51 that day. He was running late for the council meeting because he stopped at home to get a tie. As he reached the doorway to the council chambers, the shooting began. Pounds turned and ran.
"I was fortunate that I was late," he said. "I didn't have to see some of the things that people in that room had to see. Past that, I don't try to go too far. You could spend a lot of time doing that, and it's just easier to move on."
After the shootings, the survivors remembered all sorts of things that contradicted others. Some recalled Thornton shouting out the names of people he was targeting: "Yost .... Mayor! ... Hessel!" Others recalled him saying, "Shoot the mayor!" ... "Come on mayor!"
Investigators released an audiotape in August that had recorded the attack. Some of the survivors were drawn to the recording. An overriding question remained.
What really happened?
"I listened to the tape because ... I didn't want to be influenced by people who weren't there," said Betty Montano, the city clerk.
Said Hessel: "I wanted to be sure my brain wasn't fabricating anything."
Budd had heard so many different versions of the shootings that she wasn't sure she could trust her own recollection.
"I wanted to see if what I remembered was how it played out," she said.
Most disturbing to her were the moments captured before the mayhem began when everyone was saying the Pledge of Allegiance. She could hear council members Connie Karr and Michael Lynch say, "Here," during the roll call.
It would be among their last words.
Thornton then burst into the chambers. "Everybody stop what you are doing!" he yelled, followed by a few inaudible words. After that, "Hands in the air! Hands in the air!"
Thornton can't be heard saying anything else on the tape, leaving some survivors to second-guess their own memories.
McDonnell, who is now the city's mayor, was among those who chose not to listen to the recording. But he kept a copy of the police report. "I put it in a box upstairs if my kids ever want to read it," he said. "But I haven't read the report."
He had seen enough already.
THE NEW NORMAL
Claire Budd can't visit her father's ashes.
They are buried in a memorial garden at Kirkwood's First Presbyterian Church. There, his name D. Jack Patton is engraved on a pinkish-gray granite marker.
On the same stone is the name of Budd's former co-worker and friend, Ken Yost. A friend she watched die. Seeing his name brings back memories she can't put aside.
"Ken was a wonderful man, and I considered him a good friend," Budd said. "But when I see that name, at least for now, those aren't the first memories that come to mind it's what happened that night to him."
Budd quit her job at City Hall. If she was going to find a new sense of normal, she needed to do it somewhere else. She feels as if she's come a long way since that night, but not far enough to attend a remembrance ceremony, scheduled for Feb. 7. She has a hard time even driving down Kirkwood Road, past the building where she watched friends die.
Many survivors sought counseling from professionals, clergy and from the only people who could possibly know what it was like to live through such horror the other survivors. Mullen and his neighbors formed their own self-help group that still meets on occasion to keep tabs on one another.
A few found the strength to return to the very place that produced such painful memories.
Montano, the city clerk, went back to work at City Hall almost immediately. But she found herself overwhelmed by the memories. She turned to counseling.
"I don't think that I'd be where I am today without that," she said.
Mullen also returned to the council chambers to finish the work he had started. The proposal for the medical building he and his neighbors were fighting eventually was resolved. They prevailed.
Hopefl resumed his note-taking at city meetings. "I thought some of the people who were killed would have wanted me to do that," he said.
McDonnell said the tragedy had made him appreciate so much more in life. Any time he gets a phone call from one of his sons, he takes it.
"Before, I might have said, 'Peter, can I call you right back?'" McDonnell said.
"Now I think, 'Well, this is the moment I have.'"
At times, Hessel has no words for his emotions a strange mix of gratitude and bereavement. What do you call that?
"It's not guilt," said Hessel. "I don't know how to find the term for the feeling you have."
For some of the people who returned to council chambers, there are uneasy moments. When the doors at the back of the chambers open, they turn and look. Their minds wander.
On the afternoon before the shootings, Hessel was sitting in his office, apologizing to his father who had died 10 years ago that day.
I know I should get out to your grave site today and see you. But I don't have time. I have to go to this stupid council meeting.
That urge Hessel felt while he was under the desk during the attack? He thinks it was his father telling him to get up and run.
"I was absolutely certain that my father was my guardian angel," he said.
He knows people credit him with saving lives by distracting Thornton, but he doesn't feel like much of a hero. "I was just trying to stay alive," he said.
He has replayed the night hundreds of times, envisioned ways he could have acted differently. But each time he changes something, each time he veers from reality, the result is always the same.
"I get killed," he said.
For days after the attack, Burquin questioned whether she should have stood up and spoken to Thornton. Graduates of Kirkwood High's class of 1974, they had known each other for years.
Whenever she catches herself wondering what if, she remembers what a counselor said just after the shootings. During a community program on trauma, one man asked why no one had tried to stop Thornton. It was not the right question, the counselor said, because it implied that everybody in the room did something wrong.
Only one person, the counselor insisted, was in the wrong.
"I was so glad she said that," Burquin said.
And with that moment, the survivor took a step forward.