Western Psych shooting causes lives to intersect
Charissa Pacella, ER chief at UPMC Presbyerian, with her kids, from left, Nicholas, 9, Michaela, 2, Gabriel, 5, and Justin, 10, at her Bethel Park home. She treated shooting victims Thursday.
Jordan Mineo, 14, of Erie was in the lobby of the Peterson Events Center at the time of the Western Psych shootings.
Mike Bilben, 33, of White Oak was in the Western Psych garage at the time of the shooting. His wife Holly, 36, was nearby at Pitt's Graduate School of Public Health.
Joe Daum, uncle of victim Michael Schaab, waited for word with other family members after the shooting.
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On Thursday, Charissa Pacella's day began at dawn, helping her four young children get ready for school before leaving Bethel Park to drive to work as chief of emergency services at UPMC Presbyterian.
Jordan Mineo's day started even earlier. The 14-year-old McDowell High School student had to board a school bus in Erie at 6 a.m. so he could be in Pittsburgh 2 1/2 hours later to begin taking part in a robotics competition at the Petersen Events Center.
Mike Bilben's day began like most, with the 33-year-old waking at 6:30 a.m. to help his wife perform the usual morning shuffle in their White Oak home with their two children before heading to his job as an account executive for an IT support company in North Huntingdon.
Michael Schaab and his fiancee left their Edgewood home before 7 a.m. and the 25-year-old drove her into Oakland where he worked as a therapist in the geriatric ward at Western Psychiatric Institute & Clinic of UPMC.
None of them knew John F. Shick, whose decision that day to carry out a deranged assault would affect all of their lives -- and end one.
The impact would turn on small decisions, and leave them or their families grasping for reason and wondering about those small decisions.
For all of Dr. Pacella's adult life, she has trained or worked in emergency services.
"I think emergency medicine is really unique. I really like the idea that you never quite know what the day is going to hold," she said.
When she was a Harvard University undergrad, the Connecticut native worked nearly full-time as an emergency medical technician in Boston, becoming closer to her work friends than her college friends. Though she also teaches and handles managerial tasks, it's the work in the ER that she thrives on.
After she began her shift at noon, the first two hours "began as a complete average day."
But, then, sometime shortly before 2 p.m., Dr. Pacella was stopped by a charge nurse as she walked down a hallway. "There's been a shooting at Western Psych," he told Dr. Pacella.
"My first thought was that I should go see this patient [with chest pains] because I thought we were going to get busy soon," she said.
Jordan Mineo had been to Pittsburgh before, but never to Oakland.
Now he was inside the Petersen Events Center. It was the first day of the 2012 Pittsburgh Regional FIRST Robotics Competition and it was the 16th year the McDowell High School robotics team was competing. Jordan, a freshman, wasn't competing. He was volunteering at the information table in the lobby.
From his seat at the table, he could see Oakland buildings through the large glass windows of the athletics complex. One of the buildings was Western Psych.
Jordan didn't hear the shots, and he doesn't remember what time he saw police cars converging around Western Psych. But he knows there were a lot of them.
"Cars were just flooding in."
By 8 a.m., Mike Bilben was at his desk at Shiloh Service in North Hungtingdon.
He was in a rush to get his work done by noon so he could leave work early. The University of Pittsburgh was holding a ceremony at 2 p.m. to mark his wife Holly's 10-year anniversary at her job as a microbiologist at the Graduate School of Public Health in Oakland.
He pulled into a parking garage on O'Hara Street, across the street from Western Psych, at 1:47 p.m. Mr. Bilben was glad to see that because of Pitt's spring break, there were plenty of parking spots available. He walked out of the garage, and that's when the chaos started.
He heard gunshots, then saw a Pitt police officer run into Western Psych. Other Pittsburgh police officers followed him, and soon a swarm of officers covered the street.
"It was just an overload with police," he said.
Michael Schaab and his fiancee Megan Shively -- the two were engaged on Valentine's Day -- got to their jobs before 7:30 a.m.
Mr. Schaab had long been someone who strove to make others around him happy, to fix things. That helped him thrive as a therapist in the geriatric ward of Western Psych and inspired him to seek further training to become an occupational therapist.
"He just wanted to help people," said Ms. Shively, a nurse at UPMC Presbyterian, located across the street from Western Psych.
A week or two prior, Mr. Schaab had gotten accepted into the occupational master's program at Pitt. He was to start in June and needed to make his first payment.
A procrastinator, he had put it off all week, Ms. Shively said. He planned to pay with a check, but then realized he was out. So on that gray, drizzly afternoon, he left for his break to get a money order.
His day had been uneventful, and he texted Ms. Shively at 1:32 p.m. to ask how her day was going. He told her it was pouring rain, she said.
Eight minutes later, Mr. Schaab returned, walked up the steps to Western Psych, and may have been waiting for an elevator when John F. Shick walked in behind him.
Police said without saying a word, Mr. Shick, dressed in a tan trenchcoat and carrying two semiautomatic 9 mm handguns, opened fire, shooting a receptionist to the right of the lobby four times, and Mr. Schaab in the chest.
Within a minute, someone in the building called 911, drawing Pitt police to the building. They would eventually kill him in a hail of gunfire, but not before Mr. Shick shot four more people.
Jordan Mineo could see people leaving the building from his Petersen vantage point, and he saw one person carried out on a stretcher. Rumors started flying about what had happened. Someone said it was a patient who had been shooting inside the building. Another person said there was a bomb. "Within about 25 to 30 minutes, almost everyone knew."
The Petersen Events Center shut down. People were moved out of the lobby. Nobody was going in, and nobody was going out, Jordan said. Police were stationed outside the doors.
"We couldn't really know what was going on," he said. "It was scary. We weren't sure, like, what if we got hurt. What if the same thing happens here?"
But the scene was still calm, he said. He called his parents, and didn't reach them. But they called him back quickly, and he told them what was going on. He kept in touch with them throughout the day. By about 7 p.m., his team left the building to return to their Oakland hotel, and he told his parents the day was over.
"I texted them. I said, 'We're fine. Everything's good.'"
As police swarmed into the area, Mike Bilben was told to go back inside the parking garage on O'Hara Street. Inside, he called his wife. "I said I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to make her ceremony because I was being detained," he said.
He said he chose his words so she wouldn't worry, but from her building, his wife could look out the window and see the scene that was developing below.
Mr. Bilben said he has a pretty calm personality, and on Thursday afternoon he didn't start to feel nervous until police started directing him and about a dozen others in the garage to shimmy out along the garage's concrete walls. After about 15 minutes of waiting, he left the garage, then walked to his wife's office building. They spent the next few hours listening to police scanner traffic over a website on a computer.
At about 4 p.m., they left and took a bus to Forest Hills, where they picked up their kids and then drove home together.
By the time she left the room of the patient with chest pains, Dr. Pacella said UPMC Presbyterian's Trauma Team was there and they and other doctors and nurses were already "garbing up" for trauma work, putting on gowns, gloves, and protective lead aprons if X-rays were needed. .
Because Western Psych is literally across the street from UPMC Presbyterian's ER, as soon as police said it was safe to do so, a rapid response team of critical care physicians, plus an attending physician and resident, crossed to the scene to render what care they could there and begin assessing the wounded.
In the 20 or so minutes between the first notice of the shooting and when the first victim was admitted at about 2:15 p.m., "It wasn't very long, but it really seemed like a long time," Dr. Pacella said.
For the next four hours, five trauma patients came to the back of the ER within 20 minutes of each other, and two more were treated for more minor injuries.
Three of the injured needed surgical procedures, one needed immediate treatment to avoid possible surgery, and the fifth needed the least treatment and was most readily cared for.
For the most seriously injured victim, who was shot four times, being just across the street from a Level 1 trauma center did make a difference in saving her life.
"Sooner is always better with trauma cases," said Dr. Pacella, who worked on four of the five trauma cases at various points.
At no point was there an unexpected medical challenge with any of the patients "that we weren't prepared for," she said.
It was the first time in her two-decade-long career training for and working in emergency medicine that Dr. Pacella could ever recall dealing with five shooting victims at once. "The main thing was ensuring that we had enough resources to take care of everyone simultaneously," she said. "I felt in this case we were prepared for and could have handled even more cases if we had to."
Ms. Shively was also at UPMC Presbyterian, where she works as a nurse, when she got notice to stay inside.
"They told us not to go outside, that there was a shooting happening at WPIC," she said.
She began texting Mr. Schaab anxiously. She feared that he would try to intervene -- it was in his nature -- and she worried he would get hurt because "he would be the type of person who would try to calm down the shooter."
Ms. Shively texted and she called. And again and again. No answer.
At their home in Monroeville, Mr. Schaab's grandparents watched the events unfold on television, completely unaware that their grandson -- the one who spent weekends at their home playing Mario Brothers as a child -- lay bloodied in the lobby.
At 10:40 p.m., state troopers showed up on the doorstep of his parents' home in Greensburg to deliver the news: He was dead.
By 6 p.m., all five trauma victims were out of the ER and had been moved either into the operating room, pre-operating, or were admitted as in-patients.
Dr. Pacella found herself in her scrubs, sitting in a hallway, recalling a conversation she had with one of the victims.
"It was a privilege to talk to him," she said.
"It was heart-breaking to see the extent of the emotional trauma these people went through with what they endured," she said.
She thought about the events when she got home that evening.
By Friday morning, she felt compelled to write an email to a few colleagues, telling them how the ordinary tasks of life were "oddly comforting."
On Friday, Jordan was back at his post at the information table. From his seat, he could see a few news vans near Western Psych, but nothing else looked out of sort. "It's really weird, because it kind of feels like everything's normal," he said.
Friday morning, Mr. Bilben returned to Western Psych, where his car was still in the parking garage. When he showed the ticket with the time when he parked, they didn't charge him the overnight fee.
He noticed someone's shoe lying in the middle of the street near the garage -- one of the few visible signs of the chaos of the previous day.
Had Mr. Schaab gotten caught at a stoplight, or had he gone earlier in the week, or had he let Ms. Shively write a check for him, perhaps he would have gotten there after Mr. Shick was shot dead. It's a thought that replays itself in Ms. Shively's head again and again.
"I've been completely torturing myself," she said.
"If he had gone on any other day, this wouldn't have happened," she said. "I don't know why he decided to go that day."
First Published March 11, 2012 12:00 am