Shots fired.

Few things get a reporter moving faster than hearing those two words…and few phrases fill a reporter’s heart with dread quite as fast.  Those two words usually mean a leading story for the next newspaper edition or the next TV newscast.

They also mean a human tragedy has begun to unfold.

Those words stopped me in my tracks one particular Friday afternoon.  I was a reporter for a mid-sized daily newspaper in South Carolina and had just come in for the weekend shift.  A woman at the front counter was telling the head of circulation about traffic being rerouted just down the street.  I half listened to the conversation as I checked the fax machine.  She said there were local police, deputies, and highway patrol cars everywhere.

As if on cue, the newsroom scanner broadcast two chilling words …

Shots fired.

… and the snippet of conversation took on a whole new meaning.

As the dispatcher relayed bits and pieces of the breaking events, the horror of the situation revealed itself full force.  Someone was on a shooting rampage at a nearby parts manufacturing plant.  Voices crackled through the scanner speaker as the various law enforcement agencies radioed in while taking their positions around the building.

I ran to the city editor’s office and said, “Kelly, there’s been a shooting at the plant.  I’m on the way now.”  I headed toward the newsroom door and called back over my shoulder, “Send me a photographer as soon as you can.”

She was already on the phone paging our chief photographer.

The plant was about a mile from the newspaper office, and I realized about half a mile into the trip that a man with good sense would be heading away from the shooting.  I checked my micro tape recorder to make sure it was working OK, then rewound the tape.  As I rounded the curve leading to the parking lot of the plant, I glanced at the visor on the passenger’s side of the truck.  There was an extra reporter’s note pad and pen clipped there as always.

When I arrived the parking lot was cordoned off, so I pulled off on the shoulder of the road a safe distance away.  I was the first media person on the scene.  On the hill above me, about two hundred and fifty people milled about in shock, watching the building across the road.  They were the second shift workers who had been evacuated from the building when the shooting started.  Even in the midst of chaos, the plant managers were able to evacuate an entire shift in less than five minutes.

I looked at them for a long moment, then walked toward the Public Affairs Liaison for the Sheriff’s department.  He met me at the edge of the parking lot.

“Tom, you’re a little too close to the building,” he said.  “That nut may start shooting again any minute.”

I told him I’d move up with the folks on the hill in a minute, then asked him for a quick update.  A second reporter and two photographers from the paper arrived while he filled me in.

A former employee came back to the plant after having been fired a month before.  He shot the security guard in the booth outside the building, cut the phone lines, and walked in the building.  He headed to the personnel department and started shooting.  Then he turned his rage on the people who were trying to escape.

By the time the building was empty, five minutes later, seven people were wounded or dead.  My job was to talk to people and get their reaction to the events.  At one point, a man walked up and said his son was one of those who had been shot (he was lying face down in the parking lot across the street) and he needed to know if he was dead or alive, and if he had to talk to me to get the information, he’d do it.

I instinctively reached in my pocket for the recorder, then stopped. What was I thinking?  I led him to the officer I had spoken with earlier and explained the situation.  As I headed back to the hill, I glanced behind me to see that bear of a man gently holding a father in his arms while the father’s heart broke.

For the next half hour I listened to the stories from people who had just run through hell trying to find safety, people who couldn’t account for family members who worked at the plant, and people who came within inches of being the shooter’s next victim. In the middle of talking with a mother and son who couldn’t stop hugging each other, I heard a sound.

It started softly.

Just one voice.

Then other joined in.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound …

Even in the midst of chaos, God is there.

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