When ‘It Could Never Possibly Happen Here’ Isn’t an Option

COLLIERVILLE, Tenn. — A gunman opened fire in a suburban supermarket, and employees and customers immediately sought cover, barricading themselves in freezers and behind pallets of merchandise. Police officers swept in, employing lessons still fresh from training in June. Firefighters followed, shielding themselves in ballistic gear their department bought three years ago in anticipation of a moment like this.

“We wanted to prepare,” Buddy Billings, the fire chief in Collierville, Tenn., told reporters on Friday, a day after one person was killed and 14 others were wounded in the shooting inside of a Kroger store, by a gunman who the authorities say then killed himself.

The aftermath of the shooting about 30 miles outside of Memphis has underscored a grim reality: Gunfire interrupting the rhythms of everyday American life has become far less shocking as the country has confronted recurring bloodshed in schools, workplaces and churches.

It was the threat of just such a shooting that prompted officials in Collierville, an otherwise quiet town of more than 50,000 that is regularly ranked among the safest in Tennessee, to put officers through regular training and assemble a cache of protective equipment for firefighters.

“We hope they don’t happen,” Chief Dale Lane of the Collierville Police Department said of mass shootings during a news conference on Friday. “But hope is not a plan.”

A Kroger employee after the shooting on Thursday. Employees and customers sought cover when shots rang out.Credit…Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian, via Associated Press

In recent years, security experts said, the notion of preparedness has shifted beyond focusing on law enforcement officers and emergency workers to emphasizing how civilians, businesses, schools and faith communities can be ready for a shooting.

The Shelby County Office of Preparedness, which includes Memphis and Collierville, offers a training program that has held sessions with schools, churches, museums and others, with a spike in requests often following a mass shooting. The training is centered on a simple mantra that Chief Lane repeated on Friday: “Run, hide, fight.”

“What we are starting to see more of are communities recognizing the fact that it will potentially happen to them,” said Kathryn Floyd, an expert on national security at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. “In the past, we had communities that thought it could never possibly happen here, but unfortunately the increase in the severity and lethality and frequency of such events has really changed that narrative.”

Education programs on how to respond to an active shooter have become far more common nationwide. Over the past decade, experts said, there has been a surge in training, which has become increasingly formalized, with the first national active shooter response standard approved in 2017.

“Hospitals have done a number of these,” said Richard Serino, a disaster preparedness expert at Harvard University. “Businesses have hired contractors to help them do training to let employees know what to do to save their own lives, save other lives.”

It was unclear if the Kroger employees in Collierville had undergone any training, and the company did not respond to a message asking about its protocols. Still, some of them were praised for their efforts amid the chaos. “We’re learning of truly heroic acts that included associates, customers and first responders selflessly helping to protect and save others,” Kroger said in a statement on Friday.

People inside the store used any crevice or obstacle they could find as a hiding place or as a barrier to protect themselves from the gunman. One employee fled to the roof. It is unclear how long the attack lasted, or the path the attacker took inside the store. “It was over in a matter of minutes,” Chief Lane said.

The gunman killed one person and injured at least 14 others.Credit…Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

In all, 10 workers and five customers were shot. One woman, a customer identified by family and the authorities as Olivia King, was killed. Fourteen others were hospitalized with gunshot wounds; their conditions had stabilized by Friday, the authorities said. “We didn’t lose anybody overnight,” Chief Lane said. But, he added, “There are still some people that are battling.”

Investigators are still trying to determine the motivation for the attack, but the authorities said that the gunman, who was identified as Uk Thang, 29, had worked in the Kroger store, employed by a third-party vendor.

Police officers searched his home late Thursday and were examining seized evidence, including his personal electronics. Officials declined to identify the type of weapon used in the attack. Chief Lane said it appeared that the gunman had fatally shot himself as officers swarmed the store within minutes of the first reports of the shooting, which came in about 1:30 p.m. on Thursday.

The store is situated in a bustling area packed with strip malls, where the restaurants and retail stores were busy again on Friday. Collierville has grown rapidly in recent years, drawing residents to subdivisions of spacious brick homes.

Still, there were indications that the shooting had deeply rattled the community. Even as officials described the many steps they had taken to prepare to respond to a shooting like this, they acknowledged pain at having to put that training to use. “It tears my soul,” Chief Billings said.

In the hours after the shooting, which Chief Lane called “the most horrific event that has occurred in Collierville history,” a group of pastors hastily arranged a small prayer vigil at a church down the street from the store. They offered intercessions for the community as it grappled with the shooting, and especially for the people who were in the store and were injured or traumatized.

“We lift them up to you, Lord,” said the Rev. Mark Wright, the pastor of Collierville Presbyterian Church. “We lift up all the good people working at Kroger. A regular day turned into something else.”

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