Boulder, Colo. — Joel Giltner was there the day a shooter opened fire at King Soopers in Boulder, Colo., killing 10 people.
The longtime store employee had been smoking a cigarette outside when the massacre started. “I watched him execute people in the parking lot,” Giltner, 48, said.
In the weeks that followed, the ponytailed produce worker became a familiar face at the public memorial on the temporary fence in front of the store. He’d stand at the site for hours each day, a sentinel with a cigarette, mentally cataloguing the flowers, cards and tributes left behind.
Giltner found comfort in other ways, too. He spent a few minutes every morning petting Stella, a therapy dog dispatched by a nonprofit to support the shooting’s survivors, and often stopped by the community resource center set up after the shooting.
“They took care of me pretty well,” he said.
In the days and weeks after the King Soopers shooting, a small army of nonprofits, volunteers and government officials descended on Boulder to help shooting survivors and victim families cope. These groups have offered immediate guidance and support, help with long-term logistics and memorial planning, and more.
“Mass tragedies are like people. Every single one of them is very, very different,” said Nancy Lewis, executive director of the Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance.
In the wake of the shooting, she headed to Boulder with a credit card and checkbook. In the weeks that followed, her organization helped victims rent cars, connect with law enforcement and contact family members. Lewis also advised Boulder and King Soopers’s parent company, Kroger, on how to assist the victims.
This approach has been honed by tragedy. Colorado has weathered multiple mass shootings in recent years, including an attack on a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs and a massacre at an Aurora movie theater the night of the “Dark Knight Rises” movie premiere.
“When I graduated from high school, no one said, ‘Go become an expert on tragedy,'” Lewis says. “It was nothing I set out to know about.”
Lewis has worked in conjunction with the city of Boulder, which has offered ongoing support for victims and community members.
In the days after the shooting, the city and King Soopers quickly set up the #BoulderStrong Resource Center, where survivors could pick up belongings, talk with King Soopers human resources and receive crisis counseling. Open to the entire Boulder community, it offers counseling, massage and acupuncture, and therapy dogs.
Joycelyn Fankhouser, Boulder County’s emergency management coordinator, said she expects to continue working with victims for months. The alleged shooter, 21-year-old Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, faces 115 charges, including 10 counts of first-degree murder and 47 counts of attempted murder
“There will be triggering moments during the prosecution,” says Fankhouser. “Every time he goes into court or there’s a charge added, we need to be prepared for an uptick of requests for help.” Because of the ongoing ramifications of the shooting, the city plans to keep the resource center open indefinitely.
Other agencies swept in with their own offers of help. Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment organized a call with officials in other Colorado cities that have faced mass shootings. Mental health nonprofits and a medical reserve corps offered therapy. A group of public information officers vetted fundraisers and acted as spokespeople for victims’ families.
Wendy Guy, a flight attendant from Phoenix, traveled to the city with trained therapy dog Stella as a part of HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response. HOPE sent 25 dogs and handlers to Boulder from around the country.
“We met a lot of community members,” Guy said.
As people stroked Stella’s glossy fur, they would tell stories about the grocery store. Some wept. Others offered memories of the victims, who ranged in age from 20 to 65 and included a law enforcement officer, an Instacart shopper and a teenager training to be a pilot.
“It was a family there,” Guy says. “Everybody was affected.”
Pam Schwartz knows that feeling all too well. In June 2016, a shooter killed 49 people and wounded 53 in an hours-long standoff at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Over the next month, Schwartz, who is the executive director and chief curator of the Orange County Regional History Center, led the museum’s response.
She and her team documented and eventually collected items from the city’s four massive memorial sites. They also gathered nearly 225 oral histories from survivors, first responders and others.
As soon as she heard about the Boulder shooting, Schwartz emailed a curator at the Museum of Boulder, the city’s local history museum, to offer guidance. “We have this unfortunate base of knowledge,” she says. “We try to help.”
For Chelsea Pennington Hahn, the museum’s curator of collections, the email – and the support of far-flung colleagues who had worked to preserve their communities’ stories after mass shootings – was a relief. “When we heard the news, we had to figure out our role in this,” she said.
Armed with advice from museums around the country, museum workers set up signs around the memorial announcing their plans to preserve it. As she walked the wall over and over again, Hahn came to appreciate its role in the community’s grieving process. “It’s a very Boulder-y way of saying things, but it felt like a very sacred space.”
Earlier this month, museum employees and a group of local volunteers took down the memorial, leaving only a chain-link fence, a banner that reads #BoulderStrong and 10 wooden crosses. The memorial items not taken by the 10 victims’ families will be preserved by the museum and eventually go on partial display. Boulder will also offer local artists dried flowers and other portions of the memorial to use in commemorative projects.
It’s the first step toward reopening the store, which Kroger has said it will do later this year.
That’s hard to imagine for Nikki Samolovitch, who was in the King Soopers during the rampage. Since witnessing the mass shooting, the 40-year-old writer hasn’t purchased groceries in person, and she’s not sure she ever will.
She winces when she hears loud noises and faces nightmares and intrusive thoughts about what she saw that day.
“I know all the back roads that let me avoid King Soopers,” she said.
Samolovitch was in the produce section near the front of the store the afternoon of March 22 when she heard shots. As Samolovitch scrambled for safety, she hid in a cooler in the back of the store. “I could see the terror on people’s faces,” she said.
Eventually, she escaped through a back door opened by a store employee with shaking hands. She remembers seeing customers and employees tumbling into the snow from the loading dock behind the store. Once she was out, she ran, eventually finding shelter in a nearby building.
Even though it’s been a few months, “everyone in the community is hurting,” said Samolovitch, who has taught her children to scan public places for exits.
In the days and weeks since the shooting, Samolovitch began equine therapy. She sought out support from other survivors of mass tragedy on Facebook. She plans to visit the resource center, too – once it moves out of its current location in a building across the parking lot from the site of the shooting.
Despite her fear, though, she’s trying to force herself to step back into her daily life.
“Every time I want to stay in bed and not do anything, I think about how he’s already taken 10 lives and I get up,” she says. “If I break down, he’s taken mine, too.”
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