Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Tragedy and Memory

It's hard to find anything to say about the horrific events at Virginia Tech. As information comes out, it's looking like one of the hardest things for the families to cope with is that it seems nobody - except the killer - really did anything wrong. And when something this horrible happens, it's natural to not only want to find out who's to blame, but to punish someone for what happened. And the killer has placed himself beyond our reach.

It's been asked why they didn't shut down the campus after the initial shootings. Well, anyone who watches Court TV can tell you that in the case the cops first saw - two dead, a young woman who could have been the target and a young man who just got in the way - the first thing you ask is, Did she have a boyfriend? Her roommate told cops she did, a student at a neighboring college. Not only that, he was a gun owner. They'd all gone to a shooting range recently.

Of course they had to follow that up at once, as the most likely situation was that a fight with her boyfriend had gone horribly wrong. 99 times out of a hundred, they'd be right; the boyfriend / girlfriend / spouse / lover is always the most likely suspect. Within two hours they had actually found the boyfriend and were interviewing him, with every possible reason to believe the situation had been stabilized. Then the reports of carnage started coming in from Norris Hall. It's just a horrible coincidence that one of the few times correct police procedure led in the wrong direction it was the day a guy filled with deranged fury decided to take as many people with him as possible.

This is enough to make anyone shocked and upset, but for me it's done more; it's dredged up terribly painful memories from ten years ago. On December 1 of last year the Times-Picayune ran this article:

On a Sunday morning in December 1996, 10 years ago today, a former employee still bitter about getting fired and two accomplices -- one who had gotten a job as a dishwasher only 10 days earlier -- conned their way into the Louisiana Pizza Kitchen Restaurant near the French Market before opening time. Armed with a .357-caliber Magnum and makeshift potato silencer, they took money from a safe before fatally shooting a manager and two employees as they kneeled in a walk-in cooler.

Dying in the cooler that morning were manager Cara LoPiccolo, 28, and waiters Santana Meaux, 25, and Michael Witcoskie, 24.

I knew all three of them. I was working at the Old U.S. Mint, and my office opened directly onto a courtyard facing the Pizza Kitchen across the street. I was a lunchtime regular and knew all their faces, though not their names until the horrible morning I saw their pictures in the paper. They knew me too. Regulars mean a little bit more to restaurants in a high traffic tourist area. With all the hordes that pass through, familiar faces are nice to see.

It was incredibly difficult to get through that December. The entire French Quarter community was shocked, as a hit on a business like this was unheard of. The restaurant was closed, of course, and people immediately began coming to lay flowers and messages of sorrow against its walls. This became a sort of shrine to the fallen, which just grew and grew until it took up most of the block, not just flowers but mementos, pictures, statues of saints, candles tended around the clock. This made it harder for me, because I just couldn't get away from it. I couldn't put it out of my mind as I had to walk past it every day. Others who worked at the Mint, and who had also known the victims, could at least get to their offices by entering at the other side of the building. I couldn't.

I obsessed about it. I couldn't stop myself from going out several times a day to stare at the shrine, see what had changed. I think I actually became a bit unbalanced for a bit, to the extent that some of my co-workers were starting to worry about me. One Security officer, a good guy named Shelby, came by several times to talk to me, make sure I wasn't coming too unglued. I eventually did see a psychologist for a while, and he helped me find a way to memorialize them in my own way, put them to rest.

After a month or so the shrine was quietly taken down, and some months later the Pizza Kitchen reopened under new ownership. I eventually went back to being a regular, but it was never the same.

I haven't thought much about this for years, but Virginia Tech brought it all roaring back with a vengeance. For a while I was obsessing about it almost as much as I was about that shrine, watching TV for hours and scouring the web. I am getting over it. But I feel so keenly for all those kids, not just the ones who died, but the ones who will carry the scars of this forever. I think I know the feeling, at least a little bit.

Oh, and about the Pizza Kitchen killers:

A fourth victim was shot in the neck but survived. Damien Vincent, 34, played dead, then later crawled to a phone and called police. He was able to identify one of the suspects. Within 12 hours, all three of the attackers were captured.

The triggerman is on death row, and the other two will likely never get out of prison. That's something.