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Family by tragedy

Survivors of mass shootings support one another through grief and long-lasting trauma

Family by tragedy

Wooden crosses with names of the victims of the Borderline Bar & Grill shooting stand at a makeshift memorial in Thousand Oaks, Calif., on Nov. 12. (Dana Feldman/Reuters)

On Nov. 7, a man stormed into the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, Calif., a city 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles, and fired into the crowd, killing 13 people by the end of the night, including himself. Among his 12 victims was Telemachus Orfanos, a 27-year-old U.S. Navy veteran whom female patrons described to me as a “big brother” figure—the kind of gentlemanly guy who walks women to their cars late at night. Orfanos, whom everyone called “Tel,” was also a survivor of the Las Vegas massacre last year. He didn’t survive this second shooting. 

Turns out, several people at Borderline that night were also survivors of the 2017 Las Vegas shooting. The media reported that discovery with surprise, but for a little-known but tightknit network of mass shooting survivors, that wasn’t as much of a surprise: Borderline was where many of them gathered regularly for support groups. 

These survivors include people who witnessed the murders and friends and relatives of those killed or wounded. They gather because they continue to suffer the aftereffects of their trauma long after the consolation cards and media frenzy disappear. And as the rest of society moves on after a mass shooting, fellow survivors still remember to reach out and offer a hug, financial assistance, and lifelong friendships. As one survivor told me, “We’re not just fellow survivors. We’re family.” 

I witnessed this strong community support while visiting the Borderline memorial a few days after the shooting. I was working on a story about how the local community was processing its grief at a time when, within 24 hours of the tragedy, a large wildfire also hit the same area. The tears hadn’t yet dried when wildfires burned hundreds of homes to ashes and forced thousands of people to evacuate.

These fires delayed the community’s ability to visit the memorial site, a dozen white wooden crosses set up at a road intersection near Borderline. When I arrived at the site on an early Sunday morning, the first mourners were streaming in with flowers and tear-streaked faces.

I stood in front of the hand-painted crosses, staring solemnly at pictures of each victim. Their faces smiled back at me—young, beautiful, and now gone from this earthly life forever. As I stood there, several people approached me and asked if I knew any of the victims. I told them no, I’m a journalist. They nodded and said they were Las Vegas shooting survivors. They thanked me for covering the shooting. Because the California wildfires happened so soon after the shooting and were still burning ferociously, most media coverage at that point was focused on the fires. And that’s why the survivors were there—they never forget.

One, Alicia Soto, told me she had driven an hour from Palm Springs that morning to the memorial so that she could comfort other survivors: “I’m here so they know there’s someone here who’s been through it, too.” 

Soto didn’t say much about her own experience in Las Vegas, but she had a lot to say about the aftermath. A year has passed, but the memories of the screams and sirens that night still haunt her. Loud or sudden noises startle her. She works at a high school, where at times the crowded hallways and shouts of teenagers strike her with panic. When the school bell rings, she feels a rush of fear. Sometimes, even during a normal conversation with someone, something triggers her and she freezes, internally battling with anxiety. 

But Soto doesn’t have to describe all these post-traumatic experiences to her fellow survivors. They already know—they suffer the same symptoms—and they don’t expect her to “just get over it.” 

And that’s why a group of Las Vegas shooting survivors were at Borderline the night of Nov. 7. Many survivors understandably have trouble attending concerts and enclosed public venues. So when they decide to attend a music venue event, they call each other and make plans to go together. They no longer stand near the stage. Instead, they stay close to the nearest exit doors. When a member of the group suddenly turns quiet and finds a chair to sit down, they all know what that means.

“We don’t even say much when that happens,” Soto said. “We just sit next to that person and hug him or her. That’s all we need to do. It shows that we understand, that we’re here with you through it.” She let out a wistful laugh. “I used to be that girl standing way up front by the stage dancing away. Those days are gone.”

Many survivors are unable to return to previous lifestyles. One couple I met at the Borderline memorial, Lonnie and Sandy Phillips, told me they lost their daughter Jessi in the 2012 Aurora shooting, when a man fired into a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., injuring 58 people and killing 12, including Jessi.

After the loss, Jessi’s grief-stricken parents rented out their house in San Antonio, Texas, and lived out of a camper so they could attend the shooter’s trial. Then when the Sandy Hook shooting erupted in Newtown, Conn., they drove over to meet other survivors and share their stories. There, after they wept with people affected by the shooting, Sandy Phillips turned to her husband and said, “We’ve found our calling.” 

Since then, they’ve lived on the road, traveling from city to city to wherever the latest mass shooting is. They founded a nonprofit, Survivors Empowered, which matches survivors with other survivors, refers them to services, helps them tell their stories, and sends out a “rapid response team” to mass shooting sites. Borderline is the 11th shooting site the Phillipses have visited since their daughter died. 

“We’re just doing what we have to do to help other people and bring some sense to a senseless loss,” Lonnie Phillips told me as another man came over to wrap his arm around his shoulders. “We have to make sure it’s not forgotten. Unfortunately, these shootings are just stacking over each other.” 

The Phillipses have gradually become accustomed to living with the weight of their immense loss. Time doesn’t erase what happened, but it heals raw wounds. Today, Lonnie and his wife can laugh again. 

When Lonnie told me he was “three-quarters of a century” old, I replied honestly: “You look good for a 75-year-old!” He smiled mischievously and nudged me with his elbow: “Are you hitting on me?” Life will never be the same for the Phillipses, yet it can still have meaning and goodness.

Later I watched Lonnie and his wife walk around with a badge of their daughter’s picture pinned to their chests, quietly hugging anyone who needed comfort. They told the mourners they need not be alone, and that they had a new community now.

“We’re all in this club nobody wants to belong to,” Lonnie later told me. 

That morning, a woman stood in front of the crosses. Her shoulders shook as she sobbed. One of the Las Vegas survivors walked up to her and gently put his hand on her back. After a while, he told her she was welcome to come to any of their homes for Thanksgiving and Christmas. She was no stranger anymore.

Comments

  • Janet B
    Posted: Fri, 11/23/2018 08:35 am

    The tragedy of shooting survivors being shot and killed as they meet to support one another makes me weep.

    Thank you, Sophia, for this little-known news. My heart is a little more softened.