In Montgomery, Feeling of Safety Is Gone

October 5, 2002

Kimi Washington wedged herself between the gas pumps at the Shell station in Kensington yesterday morning as she waited for her black BMW to fill up with fuel.

"I feel a little more sheltered this way," she said, nervously scanning the Connecticut Avenue traffic for signs of the sniper who had killed a woman there just a day earlier.

With the attacker in that killing and other closely connected shootings since Wednesday still on the loose, Washington, 44, almost didn't stop at the Shell on her way to work.

"I used to think of my home as a place of safety," said the Kensington native. "Now I just feel surrounded by violence."

It was a sentiment echoed at homes, bus stops and businesses across Montgomery, as well as in the District and elsewhere in the region, as residents struggled yesterday to carry on their routines in the wake of crimes whose haphazardness and cruelty left them feeling profoundly vulnerable.

By last night, police had connected a shooting in the District to the earlier flurry in Montgomery County.

In Montgomery yesterday, parents hugged their children a little tighter before bundling them onto school buses. Others simply kept them home: At many schools within the 2 1/2-mile radius where the county's six shootings occurred, attendance was at 85 percent, compared with 96 percent on typical days.

Some kept resolutely indoors. A football game last night at Albert Einstein High School not far from the shooter's path drew 300 spectators, compared with the usual crowd of 600. And Comcast Cable canceled a children's arts-and-crafts festival it had planned for tomorrow in North Bethesda because many of its volunteers wanted to stay close to home.

But most residents preferred to take a few extra precautions rather than completely alter their schedules. "It's like September 11th all over again," a Pentagon employee who declined to give his name said while pumping gas in Kensington. "You don't want to give in and stop your life. I went to work at the Pentagon on September 12th."

County leaders continued with plans to hold the annual Taste of Bethesda festival today -- though they did arrange for additional police to protect the thousands expected to gather for it.

Officials at Montgomery Soccer Inc., a youth organization of nearly 1,000 teams, lifted the ban on practices and games they had imposed Thursday. Still, they suggested that parents bring along a radio to monitor for news developments.

County school officials also deemed conditions safe enough to resume outdoor and after-school activities. Not all parents agreed. Heather Hurley, 28, of Wheaton took her young son to work. He had recently been suspended from elementary school, and though she was fairly certain the string of shootings was over, she said, "I'm not leaving him at home alone. Not after yesterday."

Many of those who did send their children to school had mixed feelings.

"The [shooter] didn't target any children, but that doesn't mean he won't in the future," said Joseph Sautier, 40, of Silver Spring.

Still, Sautier said, he didn't want his 5-year-old son, Alix, to miss his first picture day at Bel Pre Elementary School.

As a compromise, father and son waited for the school bus in their minivan, rather than on the sidewalk. When it arrived, Sautier pulled his son in for a kiss, then watched tensely as he clambered aboard.

Patricia Waldron, a therapist with the county's Victim Assistance and Sexual Assault Program, said unease among many residents is to be expected.

"People are going to be really affected by the randomness of the murders," she said. "There's no rhyme or reason to them. So you have no idea where it could happen again, and that's got everyone on edge."

Those who knew the victims or were present or nearby during the shootings may even experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress, such as sleeplessness, nightmares, forgetfulness, lack of concentration and anger, Waldron added.

Montgomery school officials sent grief counselors to three schools where students lost a parent or relative, including Einstein High in Kensington, where two students lost an uncle, Premkumar A. Walekar, a cabdriver who was fatally shot while pumping gas.

Those two students and close friends of theirs were absent from school yesterday, said Principal Janis E. Mills. None of the other students sought to talk to a counselor.

At Fitzgerald Auto Mall in the White Flint area, about 50 employees who were present when landscaper James L. "Sonny" Buchanan was killed there Thursday sought help from Waldron.

"Everyone's feeling pretty traumatized and also a little guilty because we wish we could have done more to save Sonny," said service director Rob Smith.

He and other managers at the dealership were considering ways to make the workers feel more secure, such as hiring a security guard.

But Smith also remained grimly determined to carry on with business as usual. Test drives and road tests were canceled Thursday but were underway again yesterday. And Smith said he was hopeful the dealership would be as busy as usual over the weekend.

"What happened is an awful thing," he said. "But we can't allow ourselves to be held hostage. We're here to serve our customers."

At the sprawling Leisure World retirement community, adjacent to the popular shopping center where Sarah Ramos was killed, some people said they were terrified. "That's my post office," said Sandy Rovner. "That's our shopping center."

But others said they were determined to go about their business. Resident George Fineberg, 69, a semiretired accountant, said he had recently visited Israel. "I didn't worry there. I'm not going to worry here." He recalled the observation of an Israeli tour guide: "Anywhere in the world is safe, unless you're unlucky."

Strollers abounded in downtown Bethesda last night, but the wait at Raku, an Asian restaurant, was shorter than normal.

"Normally we serve about 450 couples on a night like this, and you'd probably have to wait 30 minutes for a table," said host Marcel The. "Tonight we have about 15 percent less customers, and I can seat you right away."

Despite her fears, Alissa Robison came out for a drink on her 21st birthday. But the balmy weather did not induce her to abandon all concerns. "I'm definitely walking faster," she said, laughing. "My dad told me not to stop moving."

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