BUFFALO, N.Y. — Fragrance Harris Stanfield, a customer service lead at Tops Friendly Markets in Buffalo, had just finished ringing up a customer Saturday when she heard gunshots outside the store.
Within seconds the front sliding doors opened and the gunfire moved inside as the store's security guard pulled out his weapon and returned fire. Harris Stanfield tried to grab her daughter, cashier supervisor Yahnia Brown-McReynolds, but she lost her grip. Thinking her daughter was following her, she dashed toward the back of the store to escape.
Brown-McReynolds, the new mother of a 7-week-old girl, instead ducked behind her register. She stayed crouched with her eyes closed until the gunfire stopped, she said in an interview Tuesday.
The shooting, which left 10 people dead three others wounded, has shaken the tight-knit group of employees. But some, like cashier Ashley Marks, are determined to return to work so they can continue to serve a community that fought hard to get its own grocery store.
Community 'anchor' was targeted
The gunman was dressed in tactical gear when he opened fire in the store's parking lot around 2:30 p.m. Saturday, fatally shooting three people and wounding an employee, before he entered the store and continued his rampage.
Among those killed was security guard Aaron Salter Jr., who has been hailed a hero for trying to stop the gunman. The wounded include employee Zaire Goodman, who was shot in the neck helping an older customer load groceries in her car.
Police said the suspect, who is from Conklin, New York, drove hours to Buffalo to carry out his attack. He was arrested at the scene without incident and arraigned on first-degree murder charges Saturday evening. He pleaded not guilty.
A document posted to Google Docs on Thursday night said he chose Buffalo because the city has the most Black residents and it was in his vicinity. Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department is investigating the shooting as a "hate crime and an act of racially-motivated violent extremism.”
Leonard Lane, 62, a Buffalo native, said the shooting was an attack on more than just a grocery store, describing it as the "anchor" of the community.
Henry Taylor, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Buffalo, said it took years to bring a Tops to the Masten Park neighborhood of Buffalo, which has limited access to grocery stores selling fresh goods at affordable prices. He noted that many people say still more stores are needed to serve the community.
If Tops doesn’t reopen, Taylor said, Black residents would have to leave their neighborhoods to get fresh produce, a significant hardship for the 40 percent of residents who don’t have cars.
Harris Stanfield, who started working for Tops in December, said her job was her way to give back to her neighborhood.
"I'm usually a part of a lot of the community organizations," she said. "This is my way of still giving some community service. Being here in the community and helping people and loving people is just what I love to do."
Marks, who began working at the store eight months ago, said it was her "second home away from home."
"We're not just co-workers. We are family," she said.
Employees ran for their lives; some had to hide
Harris Stanfield said she knew something was off Saturday afternoon before the gunfire started.
"My stress points started hurting. My neck was hurting to the point where I could barely touch it. It was so sensitive," she recalled. "As it got worse, I'm turning around to tell my daughter that I'm in pain and I'm not sure what's going on, maybe I should go and sit down or something. But I didn't get to tell her anything, because we heard gunshots."
She said everyone in the front of the store paused. When they saw Salter, the security guard, back up and start shooting, "it alerted us to run."
Thinking her daughter was behind her, Harris Stanfield fled toward the back of the store. In the chaos, she was knocked to the ground and lost her shoes.
"I was laying on the floor in aisle 12. I thought it was going to be the end there," she said. "I'm not sure how I got myself up off the floor or what got me up. But I know I'm running again. … I hit the grocery doors. I remember hitting the doors and feeling a little relief.”
That quickly turned to fear when Harris Stanfield realized her daughter wasn’t behind her.
"I just collapsed in somebody's driveway, because I had no idea where my daughter was," she said, adding: "You could hear the gunshots getting closer. Every couple of moments."
Brown-McReynolds said she hid behind her register in a panic.
"He walked past me twice. He didn't see me. If he had looked down, I would have been gone," she said.
Brown-McReynolds, 20, who had returned to work from maternity leave earlier in the week, said she realized how close she had been to the gunman after she watched a video of Saturday’s massacre that the suspect is alleged to have livestreamed. The video, which was streamed on Twitch, was taken down after less than two minutes, the company has said.
Brown-McReynolds, who started working for Tops a little more than a year ago, said watching the video made her "a little bit more uneasy," because she "didn't know he was that close."
Marks, 31, the cashier, had clocked out around 12:30 p.m., two hours before the shooting began. She said she usually stays longer on the weekend but had to get to her second job.
If it wasn't for that job, she said, she fears she would have "been a victim."
After she watched the video, she said, she realized the gunman "came down my register."
'We're going to stand stronger'
Marks said she is still trying to heal. On Tuesday afternoon she attended a group counseling session with her colleagues provided through Tops.
Tops has vowed to reopen the store, although no date has been given. Marks said she will be there.
"That's our second home. And we all are family. We're going to stand stronger," she said. "We're not going to let a coward take away our dignity and put fear into our hearts for doing what we love to do. And that's serving our community."
Harris Stanfield said her love for the community is what's going to bring her back.
"I just don't want hate and evil to win over love and compassion. This is our community. This is our only grocery store in the community. I don't want this to be an excuse to take something away from our people," she said. "I feel like I have to come back here. I'm not sure how I'm going to feel when I actually walk inside the building … but I know that I'll be back.”
Brown-McReynolds said the trauma still weighs on her.
"Me personally, I'm not sure," she said. "I don't know how I'm going to feel when they open it. It might be hard."