They were with Tops when filming started. That’s how they survived.

National

Some tried to help; others were alone; all were caught.

Police and FBI investigators on Monday, May 16, 2022 at the site of Saturday’s mass shooting at Tops supermarket in Buffalo, NY. This fact made it a target for a racist shooter. Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times

BUFFALO, NY — Weekend workers at East Buffalo’s Tops Friendly Market tend to be younger, those who can’t work weekdays, often because of school. Cashier, shopping cart attendant, shelf stocker – their manager Lorraine Baker, 57, calls them “my babies”. One of them, Nia Brown, 20, was back at work Saturday after giving birth to her own baby, a daughter named Aniyah, seven weeks earlier.

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

At around 2:30 p.m., he was helping a woman with her groceries when a blue car pulled up. The driver’s door opened and out came a Nightmare, clad head to toe in tactical gear and armed with an assault rifle.

Much has been discovered and will be learned in the coming weeks about the massacre and the man authorities say committed it. But this is a story about the men and women working that day at an unusually popular supermarket – one that operates like a family – and what they were doing when that place became the scene of a massacre.

Jermaine Saffold, 38, pulled into a nearby parking lot to pick up a birthday present for his young son from Family Dollar next door. He heard gunshots and saw a man crouch and walk toward the store. He jumped back into his car and yelled, “He shoots! He shoots!”

In the parking lot, Goodman saw the elderly woman he was helping to fall punch him just as a bullet pierced the right side of his own neck. He collapsed and froze, playing both dead and wanting to help the woman if he could.

Nearby, two other people fell almost simultaneously. The shooter approached Tops’ sliding doors and entered.

The store opened 19 years ago and has become a neighborhood and meeting place in what was once a food desert. Regular customers greeted workers by name, and employees were known to hang out after their shifts and meet up with friends.

It is precisely this community that attracted Sagittarius. A self-confessed racist, he chose this top after researching predominantly black zip codes and drove hundreds of miles from his almost all-white hometown.

By the time Saturday came, the man knew the store — where the security guard usually stood, where the cameras had blind spots. He had drawn a map of the interior and planned his attack through the corridors. According to people who remembered noticing him, he’d been inside before, the white stranger. Ashley Marks, a cashier who likes to joke with customers, was sure she had called his two Red Bulls days earlier.

On Saturday morning he walked in and fired over and over again. He shot women old enough to be his grandmother. Brown, the cashier with the new baby, helped customers at the self-service checkout as filming began, dodging between two taller registers. Beside her, a new manager named Chris got a bullet in the knee.

Chris quietly urged Brown to stop crying so she wouldn’t be noticed. She didn’t even realize he’d been hit.

She froze. She had never heard gunshots. She thought about the baby at home.

In those moments in business, a tight-knit and merry network of colleagues who were friends, neighbors, and family shattered into isolated individuals who made split-second decisions. Some tried to help; others were alone; all were caught.

Barry McQuiller, a 31-year-old man who restocks shelves, was walking back into the store from a break room when he realized he’d forgotten his juice and turned to get it as filming began . That might have saved his life. He sped to a nearby back door to his car. Sidney Grasty, 32, a vegetable worker, was also in a break room and ran to a toilet and locked the door.

Latisha Rogers, 33, was standing behind the customer service desk when she heard the first shots. Too far from an exit, she ducked behind the counter and pulled out her cell phone. She called 911 and, afraid to reveal herself, softly whispered to the dispatcher: Someone is shooting in the store.

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

Your connection was lost. Fearful the dispatcher might call back, Rogers put her phone on silent. But then the office landline number upstairs started ringing. Getting up and answering could mean getting shot, so she lay there and let it ring. She was afraid that whoever was shooting would come closer to get a closer look.

Jerome Bridges, 45, a scan coordinator who checks barcodes in the dairy department, was in aisle 14. Gunshots came closer and Bridges, thinking quickly, made it into a conference room. Others were already there. Bridges shoved a table against the doors as a barricade, then secured it with a filing cabinet.

Thus long minutes passed as the death toll mounted: the 86-year-old mother of a former city fire commissioner, a 77-year-old woman who ran a pantry, the 55-year-old security guard who would be called upon as a hero for the return fire.

Outside the store, three victims were dead and one bleeding from a gunshot to the throat – Goodman, the cart hand. In the frantic minutes after his fall, another worker found him, helped him to his feet, and quickly got him across the street. The woman he helped was one of the dead. Inside Tops, those who had found shelter froze—in the bathroom, behind a register, under the customer service desk.

The shooting stopped. The next sound Rogers heard from under the counter was a police radio screeching. She stood up slowly, hands in the air, and saw a policeman. She asked, “Can I go out?”

Brown, the young mother behind the register, looked up and saw a clerk. She and others would soon learn what had happened: The gunman, who had written that his plan was to drive through the neighborhood, shooting more black people and possibly attacking a second store, had emerged from Tops and confronted police, raised the barrel of his rifle to his chin before officers attacked him. Erie County Sheriff John Garcia later refused to give his name at a news conference: “As far as we’re concerned, his inmate registration number is 157103.”

Shortly after the shooting stopped, another aspect of the conspiracy became clear: the shooter had been wearing a helmet-mounted camera that was broadcasting the carnage live. Despite efforts to have the video removed from the internet, it has been viewed millions of times – including, surprisingly, by Tops employees.

Workers who had been in the store and others who had Saturday off watched the video afterwards and found a measure of comfort, even pride: it was a document of a horror they had survived.

Zachary Johnson, 19, who was trained by Goodman to collect carts, followed the aftermath of the attack on Facebook Live. “That’s my man Zaire!” he cried. Brown, who was standing in front of Tops with colleagues a day after the shooting, watched the video with the helmet cam while her daughter slept in her arms. She realized the shooter had come a register from where they were hiding.

Jihad Green, 26, was fresh out of prison two years ago on counterfeiting and theft charges when a top executive hired him – “They gave me a chance.” He has since left the store but returned on Sunday and has tearfully hugged the same manager.

The same day after, Bridges, the scan coordinator who had barricaded the conference room, walked past the back doors through which he and others had escaped. Like the rest of the store, it was cordoned off with caution tape.

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

He wasn’t alone. Goodman was treated for his neck wound, which narrowly missed the main arteries, and was discharged from a hospital on Saturday night. His mother, Zeneta Everhart, said the next day that he would not be returning to Tops either.

“We count our blessings today,” she said.

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

“Because of the color of my skin.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

https://www.boston.com/news/national-news/2022/05/17/they-were-at-tops-when-the-shooting-started-this-is-how-they-survived/ They were with Tops when filming started. That’s how they survived.

Rick Schindler

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