LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Tammy Thomson switched off the lights and crowded the children into the corner of the classroom. She tried not to think of her father, or that morning 26 years ago. She focused instead on her students and the lock-down drill, this testament to a new American reality.
But the old questions came back: Had her father felt fear like this?
Stop it, she thought — this was not the time. She whispered to the kids that everything would be OK.
That night she canceled dinner plans, told her children she wasn’t well and shut her bedroom door. She wept and recalled that morning in 1989 when she and her mother and sister and brothers became early members of a grim and growing fraternity: families upended by mass, public, inexplicable murder.
Did he have time to feel pain? Regret?
“It’s like someone is reaching into you and tearing your heart apart all over again,” Thomson said. “I feel very exposed, like I want to hide. I withdraw; it’s hard for me to be around people. I can’t laugh. It’s been 26 years. When is this going to stop?”
Her father, Lloyd White, was a victim of one of the nation’s first workplace rampages. On Sept. 14, 1989, Joseph Wesbecker, a disgruntled worker wracked with rage and mental illness, stormed the Standard-Gravure printing plant with an AK-47 and killed her father, Lloyd White, and seven others before turning his gun on himself.
The TV cameras eventually packed up and the day was filed away to history — for all but the families of the dead, the 12 who were injured but survived, and dozens who hid in closets and cubicles and had to step over their friends, dead and dying, to escape.
Wesbecker robbed them of loved ones. He took the ability to walk, to laugh, to enter crowded rooms, to live without wondering what more they should have done that day and all the days after.
It seemed unthinkable 26 years ago. They have watched it become almost routine.
“I feel like I’m gonna throw up each time,” said Thomson’s mother, Maryla White. “Because I know what these people are going to go through. And it’s not just that day. It’s not just the wife or the husband or the kids. It’s the whole family, their whole community. And it lasts forever and ever. It never stops.”
On Dec. 3, JoAnne Self jerked awake. She had been dreaming about running through a tunnel alone, away from gun blasts and blood.
The day before, 2,000 miles away in San Bernardino, California, Tashfeen Malik and Syed Farook stormed into an office party, opened fire with assault rifles and killed 14.
“I know it’s been 26 years,” Self said. “But I cry whenever I see one of these on TV.”
Self, a payroll administrator at Standard Gravure, was in her office on the third floor on that September morning when she heard what sounded like bulbs popping. She walked into the hallway and saw the gunman firing quickly, deliberately.
Wesbecker, a 47-year-old pressman with a long history of paranoia and manic depression, had been placed on permanent disability leave. Seething with resentment toward the company, he came to the third-floor offices looking for executives but found none. He fired indiscriminately, instead.
His first victims were two receptionists, 49-year-old Sharon Needy and Angela Bowman, who had just returned to work from maternity leave.
Self had to step over Needy’s body to escape, though she doesn’t remember it. For years, she braced for that recollection to return. It never did.
“I had time to get out of here. I had time to pray,” she says. “Some of those people never even had time to pray.”
Paramedic Greg Torpey and his partner had arrived on the third floor moments after Wesbecker first opened fire. He went to Needy first.
She died within seconds. His training told him to stay with her and perform CPR until they could get her to a hospital. But the gunman was still stalking the building, Bowman was bleeding badly on the other side of the room, begging them to save her life so she might see her infant child again. And there were more victims, 20 of them, scattered throughout the maze of corridors, tunnels and stairwells. No help was on the way.
Torpey ran to help his partner with Bowman.
They had no backboard or stretcher. They were afraid to move her, but more afraid she’d die if they didn’t. A police officer scooped her up in his arms, carried her onto the elevator, laid her in the backseat of a car and drove her to the hospital.
Bowman lived. But the bullet destroyed a piece of her spine and left her paralyzed.
For more than two decades, Torpey thought of reaching out to her to say he wished they could have done more. But he didn’t — until five years ago, when he saw her by chance at the Kentucky State Fair. She told him she knew the paramedics had done the best they could.
“I felt OK after that,” he said.
Pat Quinkert found himself safely on the street shortly after the first gun blasts, running up and down the block looking for his men.
Minutes before, he had walked into his office to begin an ordinary day as maintenance superintendent. A machinist named Paul Sallee stopped him; beaming, Sallee told him that his daughter had had twins. He asked for Christmas week off to go see them in Hawaii.
Quinkert took the timecards upstairs and heard the pops; he thought the air conditioner was finally breaking to pieces. The next few minutes are a blur: Someone ushered him outside. He learned there had been a shooting, and that Sallee had been hit.
He had been in the Air Force during World War II, sent to downed planes to rescue survivors. His impulse was to do just that at Standard-Gravure — to run inside, to help.
“I could have tried,” he said.
But a police officer held him back. Sallee died in the basement from a gunshot wound to his chest.
Quinkert didn’t sleep well after that, said his wife, Clara. He didn’t eat well; he sometimes woke up screaming. He loved his job, his men, the hum of the churning presses. But he called the Social Security Administration and asked when he could retire.
He’s 90 years old now. He’s forgotten some things but he can’t forget that helpless moment on the sidewalk.
“Sometimes,” he said, “I want to rub it out of my mind.”
Mike Campbell happily hikes up the sleeves of his shirts and the legs of his pants to show the scars left when six bullets ripped through his flesh. He talked and talked and talked about it: talk shows, reporters, Congress. He thought the world should know what a weapon of war had done to him.
“Why don’t people understand that it’s going to get worse if we don’t do something about it?” he has said, again and again, for 26 years.
Campbell, then a 51-year-old pressman, sat down in the break room that morning with a cup of coffee and the newspaper. He heard a commotion but thought nothing of it; the pressroom was always thundering with men shouting and machines banging. Then the door swung open and a man stood there with an AK-47.
Pop pop pop. Pop pop pop. He circled the room, shooting each man. Bullets ripped into Campbell’s arm and leg and he fell forward onto the table. He turned his head away from the gunman and tried to be still and silent. He wanted Wesbecker to think he was already dead.
Pop pop pop. Pop pop pop.
More bullets burned into Campbell’s arms and legs, until Wesbecker walked out.
Campbell tried to get up but fell to the floor into a flood of blood and water, pouring in from pipes shredded by bullets. A man who had been sitting to his right was dead. So was the man to his left. He eventually crawled out on one arm and one leg.
He had surgeries for weeks, sat in a wheelchair for months and walked with a limp for 15 years. He could never work again.
He thought he could use it all for good. He kept busy and the nightmares that haunted his friends never came for him. He worked with gun control advocates to push for background checks and a ban on assault weapons. Still, he watches year after year as the ranks of people like him — gunned down in mass shootings — grow larger.
“Nobody seems to care about it,” he said. “And it’s just going to go on and on and on. And now I’m oblivious to it. … I just can’t think about it anymore. The anger wells up.”
He woke up one night 20 years after the shooting, and saw a man in the corner, faceless under a black robe and hood. He returned night after night.
Campbell at first blamed cataracts. But a doctor fixed his eyes and the figure stalked him still. Now 77, he believes the trauma finally caught up to him. He jumps awake at ordinary sounds — the hot tub humming on the back porch, the ice maker clunking out cubes.
“I really don’t know what to do about it,” he said. “I know it’s not there, I know it’s not a part of my life. There’s no boogeyman. But I swear I saw it last night.”
John Barger carries his gun with him always — at work, at the store, at the movies.
When his children run out for milk, he hugs them and tells them he loves them, just in case. He trained them for the worst-case scenario: Know your exits; if you hear popping, start running and don’t stop until you make it outside. He owns an assault rifle.
“Safety is an illusion,” he said.
He was 18 years old, in his first semester of college, when his mother got him out of bed and asked him to go check on his father. There’d been some kind of shooting at the plant.
Richard Barger never saw it coming, his son believes. He felt no pain and died before his body tumbled down the stairs.
Wesbecker realized then who he had killed, witnesses told police. Barger was his friend; they played golf together. Wesbecker bent over his body and said he was sorry.
His father lay on his back on a conveyer belt for hours, his arms splayed, blood pooling around him. A photographer from the Courier-Journal snapped his photo and it ran on the front page.
His mother picked the newspaper from the porch that morning, fell to her knees and wailed. He thought she would cry until she died from exhaustion.
Barger never blamed the guns. His best memories with his father were of them hunting together. But he never hunted again. He didn’t want to kill anymore. He trapped spiders in jars and dodged frogs on the highway.
He quit college and stayed with his mother. Sometimes he would wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of her crying in bed and he’d climb in with her. Years passed.
“When it first happens you don’t see no light in the tunnel,” he said. “I can remember that ache. Then one day the ache is gone. It seems like you remember your whole world came down around you. And the next thing you know, the whole world’s still moving. And I guess I’ve got to get up and go too.”
When they told Maryla White that her husband had been killed in a massacre, she’d laughed and said it wasn’t true; that he always went to the Bargain Mart on Thursdays and he’d be home any minute. Then she went to the window to wait.
She remembers so little of the following years that she’s considered undergoing hypnosis, to bring it all back.
She felt trapped; she couldn’t focus or get her mind to work. This woman who had married her high school sweetheart on her 18th birthday suddenly was a 40-year-old single mother of four who had never written a check or paid a bill.
“I would go to church and I would sit by myself and I couldn’t pray,” she said. “I would go and just sit.”
The family never talked about what had happened.
“I thought if we didn’t talk about it, everything would be OK,” she said. “And it wasn’t.”
Her youngest son, Chet, then 14, started drinking. He would come home drunk and flop down on her bed. “Why, mom, why?” he would wail.
Chet White, now a photographer and a father of two, grew out of his drinking. But after decades of feeling guilty for laughing and for any happiness — “How can you be happy after our dad went through that?” — he’s just now starting to look hard at his father’s death and how he carried it with him. He’s resolved to confront it and move on.
And one day his mother, a tiny woman with a blond bob, decided she couldn’t just cry anymore. Her boys had been cross-country champions and her husband never missed a meet.
So she walked out to the sidewalk and took off.
She pounded out a little fear, a little fury with each stride. She ran until her legs collapsed. She felt, for the first time in years, a little hope. She got up the next morning and did it again. She ran and ran and ran, 20 mini-marathons in all.
“I didn’t look back,” she said. “I just kept going.”