“We found people hiding in freezers and in locked offices,” said Collierville Police Chief Dale Lane, who called the shooting “the most horrific event” in city history. “They were doing what they have been trained to do: run, hide, fight.”
The violence echoed other mass shootings in public spaces, especially a March shooting in Boulder, Colo., that left 10 people dead at another supermarket owned by Kroger. That tragedy came on the heels of an attack on Asian-owned spas in the Atlanta area that left eight people dead. Kroger and other major retailers appealed to customers not to openly carry firearms in their stores after a gunman killed 23 people at a Walmart in El Paso in 2019.
Police have released scant information about the gunman or any potential motive. Thursday evening, authorities said they were still processing a sprawling crime scene measuring tens of thousands of square feet. Asked what is known about the shooter, Lane said: “Very little right now.”
Shootings at grocery stores have risen in recent years, according to authorities. Between 2000 and 2020, 78 people were killed and 83 were injured in 28 active shootings at those venues, according to data from the FBI.
Tammi Stewart said she was picking out a birthday balloon in the store when she heard the first of about a dozen gunshots.
“A lady was like, ‘Oh, a balloon just burst,’ ” Stewart said.
Realizing the grimmer reality, Stewart said, she wanted to break down, but instead she ran. “I just started praying because I thought he was coming out of the front to shoot us in the back.”
Stewart said Thursday’s horror and other mass shootings have her questioning a new law passed this year in Tennessee that allows most adults to carry handguns without permits.
“There could have been a lot of more people dead here today,” Stewart said. “When I ran across that parking lot, all I could see were my twin grandbabies. I just thought, ‘I want to be here.’ ”
Lane, the police chief, said a call about the shooting came in at 1:30 p.m. Officers were on the scene within four minutes. As they entered the building, he said, officers saw multiple people who had been shot and others hiding throughout the store.
Lane said 44 employees were inside at the time of the shooting and that everyone is accounted for. One additional person experiencing an anxiety attack walked into a hospital but did not have gunshot wounds, the chief said.
Lane said the suspected shooter’s vehicle was in the Kroger parking lot and that law enforcement officers were waiting for equipment to safely check it. He declined to comment on what kind of weapon the shooter used.
Just months ago, he noted, the police department hosted an active shooter training.
“I watched guys that ran into the front of that building knowing that — historically, not in this case, but historically — many of these shooters have very high-powered rifles,” Lane said. “And not one of them hesitated going in that front door.”
Nine people were rushed in ambulances to Regional One Health in Memphis; five of them were in noncritical condition and four were critical, according to the hospital.
Two other victims were transported to Methodist University Hospital, where one of them was “stable,” a spokesperson said.
Baptist Memorial Health Care said it received a total of three victims. One patient, who was treated at Collierville, had since been discharged, said Kim Alexander, a public information manager at Baptist Memorial Health Care. Two others were “in good condition” at the hospital system’s Memphis facility, Alexander said.
Kroger said in a statement that the “entire Kroger family offers our thoughts, prayers and support to the individuals and families of the victims during this difficult time.” The store will be closed while police investigate, the chain said, adding that it was offering counseling to employees.
“It is an emotional roller coaster, as you can imagine,” company spokeswoman Teresa Dickerson said at an evening news conference. She said “every associate throughout the country” is standing with the Collierville team.
More than half of the 40 FBI-designated active shootings that took place last year were carried out in “commerce-related spaces,” according to a 2020 report from the agency. Four of the shooters were current employees at these businesses, while one of the perpetrators was a former employee.
From 2000 to 2017, there was a yearly average of 0.9 shootings on the premises of retailers selling groceries. In 2018, there were two. Last year, there were six.
“No one should fear for their lives while shopping for groceries,” Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), who represents the Nashville area, tweeted after Thursday’s attack. “We must do everything necessary to reduce gun violence.”
Multiple agencies were working the scene. The FBI said it was helping process evidence and aid victims. The Memphis Police Department said its officers were also helping at 240 New Byhalia Road.
Michael Knight, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Nashville, said the agency is working with police to assemble a timeline of what happened, trying to learn more about the possible motive and whether the shooter had any relationship with any victims. The agency will also trace the firearm used, he said.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) tweeted his “full support” to state and local law enforcement as they investigate. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said her office had been in touch with authorities and was “closely monitoring the situation while Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn) praised the “heroic actions” of first responders and law enforcement personnel.
The shooting unfolded in a well-trafficked area, with other nearby outlets including Target, Walgreens and Dollar Tree, as well as a host of fast food stops. The area is known for being safe and peaceful, said 49-year-old Manuel Reis, who was driving to Kroger when police whizzed by.
Tawana French works a few minutes from the Kroger and goes there at least one or two times a week — sometimes to get groceries, sometimes just to walk around inside on brutally hot summer days. On her lunch break Thursday, French was just entering the store when she saw people running toward her: a woman and what looked like four children.
“They were running and falling, and she was screaming at them to just run,” said French, 56. “Just dragging one of them behind her.”
A man came running up, too, she said. A split second later, she heard gunfire. With no idea whether the attacker was inside or outside, she fled to her car and started driving.
Brignetta Dickerson, who has worked at the Collierville Kroger for decades, told the Commercial Appeal the shooting started in the deli. When she realized what was happening, she and a group of co-workers and customers ran to the meat department in the back of the store. The gunman shot a customer in the stomach and also shot one of her co-workers in the head, she said.
“I want my mother,” she remembered the co-worker saying. “Call my mother.”
Memphis native Lacoco Pirtle, 39, said she was making a delivery when someone running said, “Come on, they’re shooting, they’re shooting, they’re shooting.”
Pirtle ran, too, and the shots kept ringing out, “getting closer and closer.”
Pirtle said she spoke with a woman who said her husband was shot in the chest and arm. The woman was covered in blood, Pirtle said, and recounted urging her husband to “get down.”
He squatted behind a dumpster, she said. Then the gunman found him.
Anders, Beachum, Berman and Knowles reported from Washington. Paul reported from South Bend, Ind. Alice Crites and Jennifer Jenkins in Washington contributed to this report.