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After mall tragedy in Omaha, a gut check

Remembering friends and family in Omaha after 'ticking time-bomb' explodes in mall rampage.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

Every once in a while, when a tragic event happens like the mall shooting in Omaha, you can assume a spectator's stance, compare the patterns and ask questions like "What is the world coming to?"

But when it hits home, your tone and the headlines read differently.  A parent might say he stole my bundle of joy.  A mate might say he lost his first love.  The Omaha World-Herald put it well on Thursday with the simple headline, "It happened to us."

You see, Westroads Mall was one of those places.  You know, the one where you accidentally hand your billfold to the cashier.  Maybe you wouldn't take it that far.  I occasionally did.

It was a straight shot along Dodge Road from my one-bedroom apartment in midtown and barely 15 minutes from my job downtown.  I worked as a community and education reporter at the Omaha World-Herald. 

My sister and I would go on the weekends to shop for good shoe deals.  We knew to phone friends if we found anything.   A former co-worker and I would drop by for pamper-me sessions and opportunities to talk about the day's events or just talk shop over a manicure and coffee or dinner.

Von Maur was the first of many stops in the mall because it was along the main drag in Omaha.  You could access it from nearby freeways I-680 and I-80. It became a favorite first-stop because of its elegance and  impressive markdowns on name-brand shoes.  In the center of the store,  you could find a musician playing a grand piano and take refuge on the couches while your mall buddy shopped.

So, I can only imagine the shock and sonic dissonance as the sound of gunshots clashed with the classical piece or cheery holiday tune the pianist fingered that Wednesday or the sounds of screams drowning out carefree chatter.

But you don't have to imagine it. In a flurry of mixed emotions, many shoppers described a horrific scene how the shooter, Robert A. Hawkins, entered Von Maur and took aim at attendants, shoppers and any sign of life.  One man only wanted a dress for his two-year-old daughter. Another just wanted to be reunited with his wife and 10-day-old child. Countless others just wanted a head start on their Christmas shopping.

After reading the headlines, my worry set in. 

I checked in with my sister.  She and her friends were fine.  She was nowhere near the mall.

Back at the paper, my friend described the mood as tense.  She was pretty concerned because two of her friends were at the mall when the shooting occurred.  One of her friends, Fred Wilson, was in the hospital.  Another one, Mickey Vickory, escaped unharmed. She later told an AP reporter that she heard shots at 1:50 p.m. on Wednesday.  "We saw the bodies and we saw the blood," she said in the interview.

I checked in with another friend, a local therapist who I always call to just chat and discuss cases that involved children with mental health issues.  He said he recalled seeing the shooter, Robert A. Hawkins,  on several occasions at a local residential treatment facility.  He described him as "a ticking time-bomb," a young man with mental health issues and probably no real treatment plan.

I checked in with my girlfriend from the New York Times.  Her family was fine.

At the end of the day on Wednesday, I could only feel a dull happiness as I counted my chicks. My sister was nowhere near the mall that day. My friends were fine. My father was in a different city celebrating his birthday.

The same cannot be said for the nine families who mourn the loss of their loved ones and the survivors who grapple with guilt and count their blessings. My condolences to their families, friends and loved ones.