Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Guest Blogger Sheila Shea: Lucky 13

Thirteen has always been a bit of a lucky number for me—most especially November 13.

It was on a Friday, November 13th that I began a 4-year relationship that, to date, was probably the most fun I've had in a (romantic) relationship. On the same date, many years later, I started a new job that essentially launched my current career. November 13 was also the date my life would change irreversibly in the most dramatic of ways.

The following is the tale of my official "welcome" to big city living. This is a story which, in full, has not previously been told in writing, or even really in completion, from my perspective. Unlike my former roommates and neighbors, I shied away from reporters, CNN, and even an episode of “Geraldo” dedicated to the incident. I was interviewed (read: ambushed) for a book, but I have no idea if/when it was published, nor did I care to read it. I didn't say much anyway.

And, by the way, this occurred exactly 13 years ago today.

Part 1: Did You Hear Something?

At approximately 6pm, Pacific Standard Time, one of my new roommates and I were painting. The sun was just setting. We'd moved in to our Lower Pacific Heights flat (one of the safest neighborhoods in San Francisco) exactly two weeks prior. Part of the agreement was that we would fix up the place (inhabited by speed-freak squatters for the previous 6 months-- our work was cut out for us). So, regardless of the fact that I was house-sitting across the bridge in Marin County, I was home that evening, painting bedrooms with one of my new roomies.

From the street, we heard what sounded like a gunshot. Running to the window, we could see we were correct. As my roommate picked up the phone to call 911 (we were in his room at the time), I tried to get a better look. It appeared to be some sort of small skirmish in the middle of the street. There were two guys and, from our vantage point, at least one gun. What I'd learn later is that one of those men was a good samaritan homeless man trying to help a woman in a carjacking gone badly. Very, very badly.

The next thing I saw were the lights of a police car, the first on the scene. They were bright as they flickered against the wall in contrast to the dusky atmosphere of the bedroom. Officer James Guelff was shot and killed in an instant. I can still close my eyes, seeing the lights then the sound of shots, followed by the momentary silence we knew in an instant was the cold sound of death.

Part 2: Noises All Around

The entrance that lead to the flats above ran along the street, Franklin, facing our front doors. The railroad-style flats, however, ran along the street to the right, along Pine. So, one could enter on Franklin with perfect vantage point to Pine. We were on the third floor of a four-story walk-up above a restaurant. The restaurant patrons had taken the back stairs to obtain shelter in my friends' flat one floor above us (to whom we kept in phone contact once no longer on the phone to 911). The police needed our apartment (later joined by the full SWAT team sharp-shooters on the roof) to get to what was really going on down on the street. What they found was unimaginable. It still is, to many.

It was a lone gunman, although my roommate and I didn't know it at the time. Having seen more than one person initially on the scene and not having anywhere close to the full story (some of which will never be known), it could have been a whole gang. What we also didn't know was that he was wearing full body armor. Or, that he had a trunk full of assault weapons and ammunition, enough to take down an entire army.

I was, to say the least, terrified. When the police came inside, I was hiding in a little cubby space in our bathroom, behind the door. Unless you closed the door behind you, you'd never know it was there. All I could envision was the shooting at 101 California (also in San Francisco, a year or two beforehand) where someone was actually in the building shooting. Not knowing how many of “them” were out there, I was taking no chances.

There was some good coaxing done by a portion of the SFPD (the entire force on duty were on the scene, in addition to several off-duty) to get me out of that room and down in the stairwell, lower and near the door. Through my roommate, I was convinced to leave my "safe" spot. That wall behind which I was initially hiding, by the way, had to be replaced later from the damage. I wouldn't have survived had I not been coerced to move. This was on the opposite side of the street side of the flat. So, you can only imagine how swiss-cheesed the closer portions of the flat were.

Bap-bap-bap-bap-bap-bap-bap… it was a heavy sound for something so quick-paced as several hundred rounds of artillery were pumped into our walls. Bap-bap-bap-bap-bap-bap-bap-bap-bap-bap-bap… pausing only slightly on occasion, presumably to change weapons and/or reload (it was apparently a mixture of the two).

Part 3: Blood, Guts and Goodbyes

At a certain point, it all became a bit of a blur of terror, dark and noise. The streetlights had long since been shot out. Police and EMTs were running in and out of the doorway—some bloody, some not. One of the officers, John Payne, was shot in my bedroom. I remember very clearly hearing the calls of distress of “officer down” and seeing him rushed down the stairs with a red side and abdomen (he lives, thankfully, but still has a bullet in his liver—a lovely memento, I can imagine).

My roommate and I each made a call, in between check-in calls with our upstairs neighbors. I called and left a voice mail for my then-boyfriend (who was on his way back from Tahoe to meet me for our anniversary--- this was before everyone had cell phones). I needed to say “Goodbye”. There was practically no way in our minds that we were getting out of this alive. My roommate called his closest friend and did the same. It wasn't the time to get chatty, but we had to say it to someone—preferably to something inanimate, such as an answering machine or voice mail, that wouldn't engage in conversation. Soon thereafter, the power was killed completely, making the cordless phone inoperable. Then, it was time to sit tight and wait.

It felt like waiting to die. I didn't have much fight in me at that point, I just wanted it to be over however that was to be.

Part 4: The Sound of Silence

Twenty minutes later, as quickly as it all began, there was silence. No fire from friends or foe. It was as if everyone held their collective breath for a moment, then followed by a bustle of activity in and out. But the gunfire was over. No pistols (the “friendly” fire), no assault rifles, no guns. I remember holding my breath as I waited for more. It, most thankfully, didn't come.

It seems immediate, but there could have been a slight lapse in time before the officer started his interview of me. I wanted out of there. “Can I leave now?”, I asked.

“Not quite yet”, as he sensitively inquired about the evening. I answered as much as I could and asked, again, if I could go. I needed to go. I had things to do, after all, places to be-- calmly as possible, I had to go. After all I had to go get Digger (my friend's then-boyfriend's dog whom I was taking care of in addition to house sitting). Gotta' go get Digger. This soon became my mantra, "Gotta' Get Digger Dog".

When he finally said that, yes, I could “go” (which, apparently, meant across the street to the debriefing truck, but, umm… I didn't know that, or I subconsciously skipped that step), I also asked if I could “go upstairs and get my stuff”.

“Yes, but be quick—you're not supposed to be up there”.

“Is it safe? Did they get them? Will I be okay?”

“He's dead. We got him. It was only one. It'll all be okay.”

I've never been happier to hear those words. Quite frankly, if I'd had to testify in a trial to follow, I don't know that I could have handled it.

As I tentatively made the walk upstairs to my room, lit only by the moon, I saw why I wasn't supposed to be up there. I tried to look at as little as possible, but saw my new feather bed, covered in blood. The sight is indelible in my brain as if it was yesterday. I saw my bedroom wall that didn't really exist any more, along with the windows that only now existed to cover my floor in chards. Thankfully, I'd packed a few things later that afternoon, so could grab my bag and go. But I do remember pausing in awe, somewhat paralysed at the sight of everything.

Part 5: Who IS this girl?

As I'd gotten rid of my car upon moving to San Francisco, I was using my friend's for whom I was house-sitting. It was “ever so inconveniently” blocked in on the street (and, thankfully, parked on a the street where it was not filled with bullet holes). Well, I'd just ask my kind neighbor to borrow hers, provided she was staying nearby.

I could not have been more stone-faced and calm. I realize now that I was simply in shock, but apparently I was Stepford-level scary. “So, C's car is blocked in, are you staying close? Yes, great! Can I borrow your car and switch them first thing in the morning? Gotta', you know, go get Digger and get back to Marin. Gotta' get Digger Dog.”

As my friend later described the incident, she wasn't sure which would be worse—handing over the keys or not handing over the keys. As I stood there, covered in paint, blood, and grime, I was asking robotically, like it was just a quick favor after getting a flat tire. She did let me borrow her car, reluctantly, but sweetly.

Part 6: And Her Little Dog, Too

As I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge, I blasted the radio, singing all the way and calmly thought, “Gotta' get Digger… things to do, mental checklist, responsible, responsible”. I swung by the friend's boyfriend's place, picked up the dog and drove over to my friend's (where there also awaited Snowdonia, the cat). Everything in order and perfectly collected.

I remember walking in the door, closing in behind me, letting go of the dog, and immediately falling apart. I sank, sliding down the door, immediately sobbing uncontrollably. Somehow, I made it to the phone. I made three phone calls--- the first to my mother, telling her to let everyone know that, yes, that's my place on the news, but I'm fine, I'm alive, and I DON'T want to talk to anybody. So, please just spread the word.

The next call was to my boyfriend's place (he was stopping there first on his way to meet me). “Hi, ummm…. If he's listening to the radio, he might be a little freaked out so… well, ,why, yes, that is my house you're seeing on television, yes, no, I'm fine, tell him I'm waiting for him here and I'm okay, just, umm, tell him to get here, don't call, just get here”.

The final call was to my sister, Peg. I knew I needed someone who would just stay on the phone with me—company until my boyfriend arrived and someone on whom I could completely fall apart. I did just that. I have no idea how many details I accounted. I know she was watching the news, although muted enough so I couldn't hear it. Honestly, I didn't want to know. As it turns out, I wouldn't turn on a television or open a newspaper for several days that followed. It was weeks before I'd watch any news program.

My sister and I talked for what I'm sure was hours. I was somewhat numb at that point. She sat (or, most likely paced) patiently while I proceeded to fall apart and probably make very little sense. Her main job in the moment was to keep me occupied and as grounded as possible until there was someone there with me in person.

Part 7: There's No Place Like Home

Eventually, my then-boyfriend arrived on the scene. It was at that moment the events as they'd unfolded over the past several hours really started to sink in. I remember sitting in the middle of the floor, shaking as I spoke, realizing for the first time that I was filthy head-to-toe, covered in a calico of paint, blood and general grime from crouching in the stairwell, among other places. And poor Digger, still running around the condo with his leash on. The moment I'd locked the door behind me, my responsibility to other beings ceased for a bit. I knew all were safe and I could just let go.

Who knows how long I sat there, being held, simply crying, unable to speak. Eventually, the boyfriend helped me into a hot bath (at my side for every possible second) and made me a pot of relaxing tea. Oddly, that day and the days that followed made clear to me just how differently my relationship to alcohol was from many others in my life. Nearly everyone I spoke to said, very well-meaning, "Have a drink, you'll feel better". I remember thinking, so clearly, "Are you crazy?? I need booze on top of this??". Tea was perfect. For the most part, it still is.

Despite the fact I'd moved into my new home 2 weeks prior, and was still very much packed for easy and fully-understandable escape, I didn't leave. Once I got some time away to fully absorb all of the events and the physical was cleaned up, walls and windows replaced, I was home. And given the odds, it was now the safest residence in all of San Francisco. It remained home to me for several years and I never once regretted that.

Part 8: The Root of Evil

We'll never know the motive of the gunman, whose name I honestly can't remember and don't want to. In his car were detailed maps outlining areas of Eureka, California, assumed to be the intended final destination. It's tough to dissect time. He'd started out, oddly enough, near my home town of San Jose. A school teacher friend of mine had a coworker at the time who'd been one of his elementary school teachers. We can only assume he'd stopped where he did because of his unsuccessful, foiled attempt at his next carjack and transfer of artillery and weapons. It's really of little consequence, I suppose. How can someone guess the motive of someone so seemingly unreasonable and probably lacking sanity?

I can only hope that, despite those who put themselves on the line, facing injury and death, many lives were spared the potential had this not come as a surprise timing to the gunman himself.

What we do know is that there was also an armored helmet in the trunk he couldn't get to. Had he been wearing it, it's likely this would have been even far worse, as he was ultimately shot by sharp-shooters in the head. With the rest of him fully-armored, one can only guess how the events might have otherwise unfolded.

Part 9: As We Travel On

For several years following, my life proceeded as one might expect. I jump less when a car backfires, although I'm still scared out of my wits when surprised or startled at the wrong moment. As I mentioned before, I stayed away from the press, although not for their lack of trying, as they called everyone in the phone book in the greater Bay Area with my last name. Being one of seven siblings, many of those were my relatives. Of course, word would get back to me. I'll give them this credit-- their stories of being "long lost friends", etc. were at least somewhat creative.

I spent the next year doing things that had previously frightened me. I started skiing. I took more physical and emotional risks-- after all, what were they going to do? Shoot me? It was a plausible scenario in my head to consider by comparison. Knowing real, from-the-core fear, a lot of things now paled in comparison.

Among the many lessons learned from all of this was that I don't trust the press. Not only did many members use less-than-ethical tactics to try and gather information from me, personally, but what was eventually published was less than factual. I know that not all journalists are without ethics-- the ones hunting me down, I'd hope, would the exception, not the rule. But I also learned how much misinformation they're fed. I realize much of this was for protection of others, and I've omitted certain details to keep that, but can't they just omit rather than misrepresent facts or utilize complete fabrication? I suppose I'd have to be a part of the business to fully understand.

There was, perhaps still is, an annual tribute by the SFPD at the site of the shooting. Every year at the same time, the street would be blocked off, a fleet of police cars would stop and flash their lights during a moment of silence. I'd see the officers responsible for saving my life. I'd see familiar faces, former neighbors, and friends and relatives of the officers and those affected. I attended the first 5 years, at which time a plaque was erected on the corner. The few times I've been in the neighborhood since, I've visited the memorial plaque and paused for brief reflection.

On January 24, 2001, California State Senator Diane Feinstein introduced the James Guelff Body Armor Act, named for the first officer on the scene who wasn't as fortunate to have survived. It was eventually renamed the James Guelff and Chris McCurley Body Armor Act of 2001, signed into Federal law November 2, 2002, making it illegal for violent felons to possess body armor.

Is what I experienced some sort of blessing in disguise? No, not really. Although they've lessened over the years, I still have occasional nightmares. If the foley work is a little too good on a film or the sound effects for a show a little too close to the real thing, or even from loud noises in general, my heart races and I'm in instant terror, transported back in time where I sat fearing for my life.

I will say it was my most lucky day of all. I survived. I'm stronger. I'm alive. Those with me on this journey will just have to expect the unexpected weepy moment from me on occasion. And understand why I jump higher than most when startled. But, really, I'm okay, underneath it all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This was very well done, and honestly the only detailed account of this incident that can be found on the web. As it turned out, you and I moved to Pacific Heights on exactly the same date and I'm still here in the same place. Thank you.