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.
The first blast was so loud it made no sense. No sound that concussive fit the experience of being in a church watching children perform. I looked at the opposite bank of pews, and people there blinked back, also confused. Then two more blasts shook us.
Sunday, 7/27/08, was the first service I’d gone to at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Kingston Pike. Although I was married there years ago and have been to numerous church art exhibits and receptions, I was born into a conventional Catholic household, and I entered the building feeling like an imposter. But Paolo, my 4-year-old son, is a regular there. Every Sunday, Paolo’s grandparents collect him and bring him to play with children at the church while they attend the sermon. Afterwards, they take him out for a grand lunch.
When Paolo’s grandparents could not be at church that Sunday, I told my wife Heather—ready for an hour or two of quiet at home—that I’d go with our son. Our friend Brian Griffin was in the hallway when we arrived, and he directed us toward the younger children’s activities. Paolo hugged me goodbye, and I followed others down to the sanctuary.
The church was crowded, as some of the children were presenting Annie Jr. I had read somewhere that most people have a natural right-going bias, so I veered toward the left-hand side of the sanctuary where I’d have greater statistical odds of finding a seat. Ultimately, much depended on that simple choice.
Before the performance began, psychologist Ted Jones greeted us warmly and gently reminded us to not let cell phones ring out during the play—an imaginable intrusion compared to what was about to happen...
Soon after the children started, a gunman entered from the right-rear doorway and began shooting people. The sound was incredible. As in not credible, could not be happening. Not there. By the time I figured out what it was and its source, I saw a white-bearded man bravely throwing himself onto a number of men already struggling on the floor to hold the gunman down. But I didn’t have time to process that vision at that point, being pulled by a magnetic force so strong and compelling I was driven into actions of my own.
I became acutely aware of Paolo in the playroom several doors down a corridor. It was as visceral as if I were touching his cheek with my fingers... my sensory nerves extended hundreds of feet. And I could feel the exact distance between us. I had to get to him.
I was headed for the main hall but was blocked by people trying to cover one another. A woman with pleading eyes called to me from a small room near a back entrance, saying, “You’ll be safe in here with us.” But I couldn’t see a way to get to my son, so I wordlessly turned and ran the length of the sanctuary, absolutely sure I was immune to bullets, blades, and bombs. I felt unstoppable, invincible.
I emerged from the church into fresh air and ran the length of the building looking for Paolo. Having earlier seen a door at the very end, I did not care whether or not the handle was locked. I could not be stopped.
Once inside, I saw Brian standing in an office doorway shouting over the telephone to the police. I don’t know how his mind could work so rapidly, but to his credit, he instantly recognized who I was and what I wanted. He continued with his 911 call, simultaneously waving me eastward, saying, “Paolo is next door.”
I ran out to find my son. I blazed up the hill to the neighboring Presbyterian church and found Paolo in a big room, seated, quiet, and happy to see me. I called Heather and told her we were okay. As I lifted him close, Paolo spoke to me in confidential tones: “There was a robber in our church, wasn’t there? A bad guy?”
In the din of crying children, I did everything to keep my cool as Paolo scanned my face for information. He looked at me with the finely-tuned emotional radar of a 4-year-old, detecting how he should think and feel about what had just happened. I picked him up and we headed for home.
I think it was then, as we walked, that images started to come in clearer out of the murk of memory. Once my job was done and Paolo’s head was safely resting against my shoulder, portions of the experience began to rise to my mind’s surface.
I have been in bad situations with crowds, including a department-store riot in downtown Detroit when I was young. I remember it as a dog-eat-dog scramble for safety, every man for himself. That was not what happened on the last Sunday in July at the TVUUC. The only scene I can relate to last week’s tragedy is a sailing disaster on Lake Michigan that I witnessed many years ago. A family grasped into the dark lake for one another, saving each other at any cost to themselves. Family members bound by love.
That day at the Unitarian church, around 10:15 am, I heard people calling to me from every direction, offering protection and a path to safety. When the shots rang out, I saw women in their sixties and seventies turning their bodies to shield church members next to them —whether or not they knew the person they were protecting.
For me, guilt lingers. I was so single-minded in locating my own son, I did not help others enough. I felt only instinct, and it pulled me toward Paolo. But during this tragedy, I believe I touched the very fabric from which the church was made. It was my first time at a UU service. I entered feeling like an imposter, acted like a stranger, and was treated like a brother.
I carried that loving little boy in my arms, and we sang a favorite song together. A little low, but steady as we descended a grassy hill to make our way home to my wife and Paolo’s mother. “Blackbird singing in the dead of night... take these broken wings and learn to fly...” Holding Paolo’s chest to mine as I walked, I could feel his heart reciting the many names of God.
Daniel Malcolm Spica is a clinical neuropsychologist who lives in Knoxville.