On July 27, Knoxville joined a short roster of cities synonymous with sudden, inexplicable violence: Columbine, Blacksburg, Omaha. The shooting of congregants at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church went beyond a nightmarish crime; it’s become another sign of the times, reported around the world as a new example of what America has become. But there were many stories that day, and they ought to be told by the people who were there. Here is one of them. Read more essays and Metro Pulse coverage.
I’m a lucky man.
The first seat I took in the sanctuary of the Unitarian church on July 27 would have put me in the direct line of fire of Jim Adkisson’s sawed-off shotgun. By a stroke of fate, I hopped across the aisle and into the choir area before Annie Jr. began, which meant the corner of a thick wall stood between me and the mad gunman.
Greg McKendry told me to be careful and not back into the camera stands.
The first blast several minutes into the show seemed to be a part of the play, though way too loud. When a second one came less than two seconds later, I heard screaming and saw people scrambling to the floor. Four of us huddled under scaffolding that supported the play’s cameras.
Then I heard a third blast; surely, I thought, someone would soon be announcing that this was only part of the play, that we had panicked needlessly. Surely, the unthinkable could not be happening in Knoxville, Tenn., in a room where we talk about love and acceptance.
We huddled like rabbits and waited and I don’t remember hearing any voices or sounds.
Soon—two minutes maybe, but it seemed like an eternity—a male voice calmly announced that we should leave the sanctuary; the voice conveyed security and safety.
I emerged and saw Greg McKendry lying on his back four feet from me. Seeing no blood and him looking very peaceful with his eyes closed, I was still hoping that this was part of the play and that Greg was acting; his eyes were closed and he looked at rest, and he had spoken to me only 12 minutes earlier.
Then 20 feet away I saw a woman whose face was splattered with blood and I knew we had come under attack.
In the church yard people stood dazed on the grass, crying and looking for family members. I thought we should move farther from the building, because I feared more shots or thought more gunmen could be nearby. I didn’t know the lone gunman had already been subdued only eight feet from where I had been sitting.
I found two moms with crying children—all without purses, keys, or cell phones and one child without shoes—so I led them away from the building.
I knocked on a door and we used a phone to call for rides. We walked down the bike trail toward Concord Street. I had always wanted to meet school board member Indya Kincannon and gave her scared little girl a piggy-back ride to Tyson Park, where they were picked up by a friend.
I hate that we live in a country where even the angry and disturbed can buy a gun at a pawn shop and act upon their hatred. I think we should study how more civilized nations—Canada, Japan, the UK—have all achieved much lower rates of gun violence.
The nearest billboard to my house, a Lamar Advertising property on Sutherland Avenue, announces a gun show at the Knoxville Expo Center this weekend, August 9 and 10. If I weren’t busy protesting an illegal war in Iraq this Sunday I’d consider attending. I’d like to tell these merchants of death to be careful, very careful, to whom they sell their deadly weapons.
Bob Grimac is a teacher and peace activist.