Waiting, uncertainty agonizing outside gym
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Pat Falk had been calling her daughter, 26-year-old Stacey Falk, inside LA Fitness for nearly an hour. Her husband had heard briefly from their daughter after the shooting but now Ms. Falk wasn't getting an answer, and she was worried all over again.
Stacey was OK, Ms. Falk's friend reassured her, hugging her as Ms. Falk -- like dozens of other worried people standing in little groups all over the shopping center's parking lot -- stood staring at the health club, her cell phone pressed to her ear. At least her daughter had called that one time.
Ms. Falk was with two friends at a nearby restaurant when she heard shots had been fired inside LA Fitness last night, and several people had been hurt or killed.
"I said no, not that place, please," she said as she watched the front door of the fitness center for her daughter to come out.
Around her, people parked their cars and rushed to the scene, some ducking under the yellow police tape toward the wall of flashing ambulance and police cruiser lights that ringed the edge of the parking lot. Inside the cordon, the parked cars of scores of shoppers and club members stood trapped.
"We need you to move back!" shouted one police officer, holding out his arms and herding groups of people, many of them in workout clothes, through the cars and away from the entrance to the club.
One of those bystanders, Steve Profeta, obeyed the officer but found his car had been blocked by an ambulance that had parked in the middle of the row. Inside, two paramedics lifted out a stretcher, and one paused to give instructions to the grandmother of a girl who had been inside the club when the shooting started.
Which hospital would her granddaughter have been taken to?, the woman asked.
Victims had been taken to hospitals all over the city, the paramedic replied. She could be anywhere. Family members were being told to gather at the Bob Evans restaurant about a quarter-mile down Washington Pike for more information, the paramedic told her.
The woman, wide-eyed, nodded and walked away toward the restaurant.
Mr. Profeta continued calling his friends, Charlie and Tyler Wertz, who had been inside the club. Finally, he found them crossing the parking lot toward him. Charlie Wertz's phone hadn't been charged, so he had left it in his car.
When they heard the shooting start -- pop, pop, pop, more than a dozen times -- they grabbed several girls who had been working out in the same room, and barricaded themselves inside a nearby supply closet.
One of them put an extra shelf across the door, then shoved some rolls of carpet and some heavy buckets in front of that. Then one of the girls called the police, and they waited until the police arrived to rescue them 15 minutes later.
"We sat against the door to make sure no one got in until the police came," said Tyler Wertz, 18, of Oakdale.
As they talked, Mr. Profeta and another friend kept calling their friend Melina Williams, who had been inside during the shooting and who wasn't answering her phone. Finally, through a mutual friend, they found out that Ms. Williams had been shot in the knee but was still alive.
In the parking lot, Richard Walker was covered in blood, waiting for investigators to allow him back into the gym to retrieve his cell phone.
He was playing basketball with a group of friends when suddenly children ran onto the court, screaming. Thinking nothing of it, the group kept playing, then Mr. Walker, 23 of Tulsa, Okla., heard six or seven gunshots. About 20 people rushed onto the court. As he raced to a side door, he scooped up a woman who had been shot in the leg. He ran with her for 50 yards, then helped her onto a sidewalk where he put pressure to her wounds and waited for ambulances.
"I had her running through cars trying to get away," he said. "She was screaming, 'He's going to kill me, he's going to kill me, he's going to kill me.' "
Nearby, Ms. Falk was joined by her husband, Craig. After Stacey called him, he found her outside the club and they talked for a few minutes before the police shooed them away so they could question witnesses. He stood with his wife and her friends, now and then smoking a cigarette that he had tucked into the waistband of his shorts.
At 10 p.m., two hours after the shooting, he walked back toward the entrance of the fitness club and came back with his daughter, pale and shaking in her thin, sleeveless T-shirt and shorts.
Her mother walked over to meet her, and wrapped her arms around her daughter, who began sobbing. As she cried, telling her mother what had happened inside, her father slipped her pink workout bag from her shoulder and shrugged it onto his own.
Within moments of the first 911 call, local police, firefighters and paramedics had swarmed into the shopping center parking lot -- some from the Kirwan Heights fire hall, just across Washington Pike. As crews from Collier and neighboring communities realized what faced them, they called for more help.
Emergency crews from all over the South Hills -- as far away as South Park, Pleasant Hills and Jefferson Hills -- rushed into the strip mall. Patrons and clerks in those businesses initially huddled behind locked doors, ducked behind counters or fled to stock rooms until police assured them they could come out.
Hundreds of people gathered outside the fitness center, standing under the glowing lights of its fluorescent signs. Many of them hit redial over and over on their cell phones, then buried their heads on the shoulders of others or wept in near-hysteria after their calls went unanswered by loved ones who'd been inside the gym.
Others walked from store to store, knocking at locked doors to plead for information from workers inside. One father, told by a police officer to move back from the fitness center scene, snapped in response: "Do you have a daughter in there?"
Relatives and friends of those who'd been inside the fitness center eventually were directed to the Bower Hill Volunteer Fire Department on Vanadium Road in Scott to await word on the dead and wounded.
There, they were comforted by crisis counselors and priests from the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese -- the Revs. Kim Schreck, John Naugle and Joseph Freedy, who were sent to the fire hall by Bishop David Zubik.
Father Freedy had been one of the first to the gym after the shooting, Father Schreck said. Father Freedy, who had been passing by, ministered to panicked club members in the fitness center parking lot and also comforted some of the wounded before contacting the bishop.
Bishop Zubik then dispatched the three priests to the fire hall, and the bishop himself visited the wounded and their families at the three hospitals.
"We're here so we can help, perhaps, some with their spiritual needs," Father Schreck explained.
The priests listened to, counseled and prayed with more than a dozen people inside the fire hall "whether they were traumatized by the incident or here for a loved one," he said.
Asked what he told people in such situations, he said, "Evil is real. For whatever reason, this man acted in a horrible way, and we suffered because of it. Some people blame God, but He is here in us. The Lord is with us in our suffering."
Questioned about the demeanor of those in the fire hall, he said, "These people seemed to be, at least for right now, taking it in stride. Everyone is just waiting."
Meanwhile, Allegheny County homicide detectives questioned a barrage of witnesses at Bob Evans. A gaggle of reporters gathered outside.
Debi Wozniak also traveled there to meet her sister, Joann Gazzam, who was in the Latin Impact workout class with about 30 others when the shooting occurred.
In a brief phone conversation, she told Ms. Wozniak what she saw: a man holding a duffel bag entered the room through its glass doors. He put the bag down near a set of weights then "pulled two handguns out and people started dropping," Ms. Wozniak said, relaying the conversation. "The instructor was hit."
Ms. Wozniak and her daughter, Kristin, usually attend the class. Running late, they stopped at a gas station where a startled attendant told them there had been a shooting.
Her sister told her, "the chances would have doubled that someone in our family would have been hurt," if she had been on time.
Brandon Babjack was also waiting outside Bob Evans. He was reading harried text messages from a friend who was inside the gym during the shooting.
"Freaking 11 Fitness just got shot up," one message read. "Its freakin crazy ... I'm like nervous as hell now."
At about 11:30 p.m., police converged on what appeared to be the suspect's vehicle -- a silver Nissan Altima parked in the first row of parking spots directly in front of the fitness center. With gloved hands, they opened all four doors and its trunk and removed a long red bag before summoning a tow truck for the car.
Shortly before midnight, a pair of vans from the Allegheny County medical examiner's office pulled off Washington Pike into the shopping center parking lot. A half-hour later, workers removed the bodies from inside the center and carried them, one by one, to the vans, their engines growling, while investigators in uniforms and suits huddled near the center's front doors.
First Published August 5, 2009 1:52 am