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They were at Tops when the shooting started. This is how they survived

  • >> Michael Wilson, The New York Times
    Published: 2022-05-17 18:04:13 BdST

On weekends, the employees at the Tops Friendly Market in East Buffalo tend to be younger, the ones unable to work weekdays, often because of school. Cashiers, shopping cart attendants, shelf stockers — their manager, Lorraine Baker, 57, calls them “my babies.” One of them, Nia Brown, 20, was just back to work Saturday after having had her own baby seven weeks earlier, a daughter named Aniyah.

Baker said goodbye after her shift Saturday afternoon and walked out of Tops. The store hires heavily from the surrounding neighbourhood, and if the employees weren’t her actual babies, they might still be family: In the parking lot as Baker left, her cousin, Zaire Goodman, 20, was collecting carts.

About 2:30 pm, he was helping a woman with her groceries when a blue car pulled up. The driver’s door opened, and a nightmare stepped out, covered from head to toe in tactical gear and carrying an assault rifle.

Much has been discovered and will be learnt in the weeks ahead about the massacre and the man who authorities say perpetrated it. But this is a story about the men and women who were at work that day at an uncommonly beloved supermarket — one that functions like a family — and what they did when that place became the scene of a massacre.

Jermaine Saffold, 38, was just pulling into a parking spot nearby to duck into Family Dollar next door for a birthday present for his young son. He heard gunshots and saw a man crouch-walking toward the store. He jumped back in his car, shouting, “He’s shooting! He’s shooting!”

Goodman, in the parking lot, saw the older woman he was helping fall, struck, just as a round pierced the right side of his own neck. He dropped and froze, both playing dead and wanting to help the woman if he could.

Nearby, two other people fell almost simultaneously. The gunman approached the sliding doors of Tops and entered.

The store opened 19 years ago and became a neighbourhood hub and gathering place in what had been a food desert. Regular customers greeted workers by name, and employees were known to hang out after their shift, catching up with friends.

This very community is what drew the gunman. An avowed racist, he selected this Tops after researching predominantly Black ZIP codes and drove hundreds of miles from his nearly all-white hometown.

By the time Saturday arrived, the man knew the store — where the security officer usually stood, where the cameras had blind spots. He’d drawn a map of the interior and plotted his assault through the aisles. He’d been inside before, according to people who remembered noticing him, the white stranger. Ashley Marks, a cashier who likes to joke with customers, was sure she rang up his two Red Bulls days earlier.

On Saturday morning, he walked inside and fired, over and over. He shot women old enough to be his grandmother. Brown, the cashier with the new baby, was helping customers in the self-checkout lanes when the shooting began, and she dove between two taller cash registers. Beside her, a new manager named Chris took a bullet in the knee.

Chris quietly urged Brown to stop crying so she wouldn’t draw attention. She didn’t even realise he’d been hit.

She froze. She’d never heard gunfire before. She thought about the baby at home.

In those moments in the store, a tight and cheerful network of co-workers who were friends, neighbours and family shattered into isolated individuals making split-second decisions. Some tried to help, others were alone, everyone was trapped.

Barry McQuiller, a 31-year-old man who stocks shelves, was just walking back into the store from a break room when he realised he’d forgotten his juice, and he turned to grab it when the shooting began. That may have saved his life. He bolted for a nearby back door to his car. Sidney Grasty, 32, a produce worker, was also in a break room and ran to a restroom and locked the door.

Latisha Rogers, 33, was standing behind the customer service counter when she heard the first shots. Too far from an exit, she ducked down behind the counter and pulled out her cellphone. She called 911 and, afraid of revealing herself, whispered softly to the dispatcher: There’s someone shooting in the store.

I can’t hear you, the dispatcher told her. Why are you whispering?

Their connection broke. Afraid the dispatcher might call back, Rogers switched her phone to silent mode. But then the office landline above started ringing. Standing up and answering it could mean getting shot, so she stayed down and let it ring. She was terrified that whoever was shooting would come for a closer look.

Jerome Bridges, 45, a scan coordinator checking bar codes in the dairy section, was in Aisle 14. The sounds of gunfire were coming closer, and, thinking quickly, Bridges made it to a conference room. Others were already there. Bridges pushed a table against the doors as a barricade, then fortified that with a filing cabinet.

Long minutes passed this way as the death toll rose: the 86-year-old mother of a former city fire commissioner, a 77-year-old woman who ran a food pantry, the 55-year-old security guard who would be hailed as a hero for returning fire.

Outside the store, three victims were dead, and one was bleeding from a shot to the neck — Goodman, the cart worker. In the frantic minutes after he fell, another worker found him, helped him to his feet and fast-walked him across the street. The woman he had been helping was one of the dead. Inside Tops, those who had found shelter froze in place — in the bathroom, behind a register, beneath the customer service counter.

The shooting stopped. The next sound Rogers heard beneath the counter was the squawk of a police radio. She slowly stood, hands in the air, and saw a police officer. She asked, “Can I get out?”

Brown, the young mother behind the register, looked up to see an officer. She and others would soon learn what had happened: The gunman, who had written that his plan was to drive around the neighbourhood, shooting more Black people and possibly striking a second store, had emerged from Tops and, confronted by police, raised the barrel of his rifle to his chin before officers tackled him. The Erie County sheriff, John Garcia, would later refuse to speak his name at a news briefing: “As far as we’re concerned, he’s Inmate Control Number 157103.”

A makeshift memorial on Monday, May 16, 2022, to the victims of Saturday’s mass shooting at Tops supermarket in Buffalo, NY. The Tops supermarket was a hub in a largely Black section of Buffalo, that fact made it the target of a racist gunman. Malik Rainey /The New York Times

A makeshift memorial on Monday, May 16, 2022, to the victims of Saturday’s mass shooting at Tops supermarket in Buffalo, NY. The Tops supermarket was a hub in a largely Black section of Buffalo, that fact made it the target of a racist gunman. Malik Rainey /The New York Times

Soon after the gunfire stopped, another aspect of the plot became clear: The gunman had worn a camera mounted on his helmet, livestreaming the carnage. Despite efforts to remove the video from the internet, it was viewed millions of times — including, surprisingly, by employees at Tops.

Workers who had been inside the store and others who were off Saturday watched the video after the fact, finding a measure of comfort, even pride: It was a document of a horror they had survived.

Zachary Johnson, 19, who was trained to collect carts by Goodman, watched the aftermath of the attack on Facebook Live. “That’s my man Zaire!” he shouted. Brown, standing with co-workers outside Tops a day after the shooting, watched the helmet camera video with her daughter asleep in her arms. She realised the gunman had come one register away from where she had been hiding.

Jihad Green, 26, had been fresh out of jail for forgery and larceny two years ago when a Tops manager hired him — “They gave me an opportunity.” He has since left the store, but returned Sunday, tearfully embracing that same manager.

That same day-after, Bridges, the scan coordinator who had barricaded the conference room, walked past the back doors from which he and others had made their escape. It was blocked off with police tape like the rest of the store.

“I don’t know if I can go back,” he said.

He was not alone. Goodman was treated for his neck wound, which had narrowly missed major arteries, and was released from a hospital Saturday evening. His mother, Zeneta Everhart, said the next day that he would not be returning to Tops either.

“We’re counting our blessings today,” she said.

And Marks, the joking cashier, said she could not imagine standing in that post with her back to the front door ever again. The new manager, who is white, had been shot in the knee while working at her register. Marks, who is Black, said she couldn’t help but think that had she been in that spot, she would have been murdered for one simple reason:

“Because of the colour of my skin.”

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