Before the paramedics, policemen and firefighters responded to the tragic shooting at Safeway last Jan. 8, another group of responders were already working frantically to save lives.
The employees of Safeway on the corner of Ina and Oracle roads, who have received scarce media recognition for their efforts, stepped outside the realm of their typical responsibilities that day.
Out of pure instinct and necessity, the Safeway employees jumped in to try and save the lives of the injured, pay respects to the deceased, and do what had to be done.
Before the professionals took over, Safeway employees acted as nurses and doctors; they were the security, the caregivers, and the eyewitnesses.
Sandra Gonzalez was one of many Safeway employees who served as a first respondent that day.
“I was late that day,” she said. “My husband dropped me off. When we got into the parking lot, I saw a co-worker with an awful look on her face. She started running. It was a blur, just a bunch of commotion. It was like a movie when you see the faces but hear no sound.”
When Gonzalez realized what was happening, she quickly rushed to help.
“I ran and grabbed a basket, and I put gallons of water in it along with some paper towels,” she said. “I wanted to see if I could help anyone. There was a lady that was crying so badly that she was shaking. I thought she was going to go into shock. I made her drink the water I’d brought.”
As Gonzalez was doing this, another Safeway employee was working desperately to perform CPR on some of the victims.
Produce and deli workers were simultaneously rushing out white coats for people who were injured.
Once detectives arrived, many employees and customers stayed for almost seven hours to answer questions.
“Customers were there for a long time. They couldn’t start leaving until about 4:30 p.m.,” said Gonzalez. “Our deli guys brought the customers food and drinks while they were waiting.”
Jill Flora, who formerly worked at the Safeway, was the first one to be notified at the Swan and Sunrise store about the shooting.
“I was immediately worried about the employees. Those are my people,” said Flora.
As further details emerged, Flora was one of many to visit the Ina Safeway in the days afterward to lend her support to her former coworkers and customers.
“I helped make ribbons and handed them out to the employees and customers,” she said. “One employee was badly shaken up by the incident. All he kept talking about was how he wanted to go see his mom in California. When Starbucks offered money to the employees for drinks, we decided to give it to him toward his flight. All the money for his flight was raised that day.”
Unifying actions such as this were not rare following the tragedy. Safeway had several meetings regarding the incident and offered counseling to its employees. They also arranged a work dinner, which nearly every Ina employee attended.
“This has really brought us together,” said Aggie Westendorf, a Safeway employee. “All the petty stuff has stopped. People that didn’t used to get along talk all the time now.”
The ties have only grown tighter as the one-year anniversary of the tragic Jan. 8 shooting approaches.
“All the coworkers have become a family. We are closer than ever before,” said employee Shayne Spude.
The customers of Safeway have lent their support to the employees and the families of those who lost a loved one through hours of volunteer time.
“People brought in food, flowers, and cards. It was a tragedy, but everybody was together,” said Gonzalez.
Westendorf said many customers come in talking about the anniversary.
“They want to know what is going on in the community to pay respect,” he said.
The public outreach has been felt by the families, and those injured on Jan. 8, as Westendorf says that almost every person injured on Jan. 8 has returned to the store to thank those who helped them on the scene.
The community as a whole has organized countless programs and memorials to honor those injured and killed on Jan. 8.
Scholarship funds, memorials, mental awareness programs, and funds for victims’ families are just a few of the numerous responses to the tragedy.
Several non-profit organizations, such as Tucson Homicide Survivors, have readily offered their services. The organization, which specializes in aiding the families and friends of murder victims, was one of the first to respond to the tragedy.
“We had over 100 crisis responders show up to give support to the family members of the victims,” said Carol Gaxiola, of Homicide Survivors. “We are still in contact with those families. This is for a lifetime.”
Ben’s Bells was also on the scene soon after, hanging bells in the parking lot trees with the help of FBI agents. This Jan. 8, the non-profit organization will randomly distribute bells throughout Tucson, and will hold a community-wide ringing of bells event at 10:11 a.m., which is the exact time suspected gunman Jared Lee Loughner opened fire in the Safeway parking last one year ago.
The shooting, which took six lives and injured another 13, demonstrated a message of intolerance. From minutes after the tragedy until now, almost one year later, it is that very message that has been met with resistance by those Safeway employees, Tucsonans, and the nation.
“What happened after the shooting was a demonstration of the Tucson that we know and love,” said Ron Barber, District Director for Giffords’ office.
“Various members of the national media said they had never seen anything like this. They had never seen a community respond to a tragedy in the way our community did. For that, we have to be proud.”
Barber was injured along with Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in the shooting.