I walked into the Hybla Valley Dart Drug last week to buy a birthday card for a friend. An hour and a half later, I left, terrified and thankful that I was alive.
Things were quiet when I first walked into the store early last Wednesday evening -- a few customers were browsing up and down the aisles, others were looking over books at the magazine rack.
I had barely reached the card counter in the center of the store when that quiet was shattered. From up front, I suddenly heard shouting. Some instinct told me to move, that what was going on was more than a minor dispute. As I began edging toward the back of the store, I heard what sounded like scuffling, more angry shouting and then -- a shot.
Around me, the 15 or so other customers seemed to have the same thought as I did: Get out of the line of fire -- fast.
In the few seconds after I heard the shot, wild scenes went through my mind. Were there two gunmen taking over the store? Was there a madman who already had killed someone and was heading down the aisles ready to shoot and kill anyone who got in his escape path?
As I ducked behind a drug counter, a woman's terrified eyes looked at me, "My children are out front in my car, oh my God. What should I do?"
"Call an ambulance, someone's been shot," a customer frantically whispered as the pharmacist picked up the phone.
"No, call the police, call the police, they'll send an ambulance," someone else insisted.
Then we began listening: Did the sudden silence mean more danger? Had someone been hurt? Could we come out from behind the safety of our barrier?
From up front, came more noises -- it sounded like bustling -- and the same sixth sense that had urged all of us to run for cover told us it might be safe to come out.
Slowly, my instincts as a reporter began to overtake those first -- and unbelieveably strong -- instincts for survival. Quietly, cautiously, I began inching my way along the aisles, until I got to the front of the store.
At the counter near the front door, everyone was talking at once, asking their newly found comrades if they were okay, describing what they had seen happen, trying to find out what had happened.
I saw two women on the sidewalk outside and decided to see if they had witnessed anything. A man had come running from the store, they said, and headed around a corner.
"Yeah, I saw him, he just took off around that corner, someone said he's over at the McDonald's now," said one woman.
Then a police car came racing through the parking lot. One officer jumped out of the car before it even stopped.
"Where are they? Are they still here? he demanded as he ran past us with his hand on his gun.
As I followed him into the store, I heard him ask the small group of people still huddled around the front counter, "Was anyone shot?"
"Yes, a man was shot, he's over there," said an employe.
A young man sat white-faced and shaking on a candy counter. The right side of his white shirt was covered with black gunpowder. When police lifted his shirt to see if he had been wounded, they found a small burn beneath his right arm, evidence that the bullet had barely missed him.
As several more officers poured into the store, the young man, who insisted he was not hurt, began describing his part in the drama.
Like the rest of us, he said, he had stopped in the store to run a quick errand.At the front counter, he said, he saw the cashier filling a bag with money at the front register. At first, he didn't know what was going on.
"He (the cashier) asked the guy if he wanted the change, too," the young man said, "and I knew then something wasn't kosher."
As the thief turned to flee, the young man jumped him from behind and pulled him to the floor. In the struggle, the young man said, the thief fired his gun.
Later, cashier John Sawell told polce the man who was carrying a small handgun, maybe a .22 caliber, had taken nearly $200 before running out of the store.
One officer telephoned for help from the cannie corps in tracking down the man, while other officers began questioning witnesses.
The young man who had tackled the thief refused an ambulance, after insisting that he had only scraped an elbow and felt just a little faint.
But as he left, he was visibly, almost violently, shaking.
"If I had known he had a gun I would never have jumped him," he finally confessed.
I bought my roommate a birthday card and left.
When I finally got home, I found I couldn't sleep. My strongest reaction was that it certainly was not like the movies, where courage and bravado overcome my fears.
All I felt fear, and a nearly overwhelming urge to hide.
But I also realized I was lucky. Luckier than Ronald Reagan. Luckier than Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy, who was a true hero when he threw himself between the president and oncomming bullets last week. Luckier than D.C. police officer Thomas Delahanty and luckier than presidential press secretary Jim Brady.
And God knows -- God knows -- I was luckier than my friend Peter, who spent Christmas Day struggling for his life after two men, intent on robbing his home, shot him in the head.
Three days later, despite the efforts of an around-the-clock team of nurses and doctors, Peter's struggle was over. The 172nd person killed by a gun in the Washington area last year.
The next day, three other names were added to the list.