It wasn’t a burst balloon or someone dropping groceries. It was gunfire.
Customers and employees ran in panic — some grabbing purses, others leaving behind cellphones and belongings in the chaos. Managers ushered colleagues and patrons into storage rooms and freezers. They sat quietly and prayed. Then the shots stopped.
“It was over in a matter of minutes,” Collierville Police Chief Dale Lane told reporters Friday.
The Collierville shooting is at least the third to take place at a grocery store in recent months. In March, a shooting in Boulder, Colo., left 10 people dead at another supermarket owned by Kroger. In June, a gunman fatally shot a grandmother and her 1-year-old grandson inside a Publix in South Florida. Shootings at grocery stores have risen in recent years, according to authorities, as gun violence reaches into even the most mundane locations.
Police identified the shooter as Uk Thang, 29, a third-party vendor who worked selling sushi in the store. In all, 15 people were shot, including 10 store employees and five customers, among them a 70-year-old woman who was killed. Olivia King, a longtime Collierville resident and widowed mother of three, was shot in the chest and later died, her son Wes said in a statement.
On Friday, Lane acknowledged the “terrible tragedy” but noted “there are so many things that went well that prevented further loss of life.” Among them, he suggested, employees and customers are by now familiar with the protocol for mass shootings: Run, hide, fight.
A burst of violence, an unclear motive
The first shots rang out at 1:30 p.m. on a mild early autumn day in Collierville, a community of about 50,000 whose downtown district featuring a row of picturesque stores is on the National Register of Historic Places. An officer happened to be in the parking lot when a frightened bystander approached, alerting him to the gunfire.
Inside, Sara Wiles, an ICU nurse, ran toward the back of the store, where employees in the meat department were shepherding customers into a nearby storage area. She called her husband of 31 years as gunfire pierced the air.
“We just hid and prayed and huddled together until we could get out of there,” she told ABC Memphis.
From the produce section, Jean Prost had been putting up juices when she suddenly heard and saw the commotion. A longtime Kroger employee, she ran to exit the store as colleagues she considers family urged her to move faster.
“Oh my gosh, this is horrifying, this is horrifying, I’m going to die!” she recounted thinking to the local ABC affiliate. “This is it, the end of my life.”
Shopper Tammi Stewart also found herself suddenly in the midst of mayhem, picking out a birthday balloon one minute and running from gunfire the next.
“I just started praying because I thought he was coming out of the front to shoot us in the back,” she told The Washington Post in the hours after the attack.
Within four minutes, droves of officers descended on the scene, Lane said. First responders — equipped in anti-ballistic gear they’d asked the town to purchase just three years ago, imagining a mass shooting might one day hit their own community — began tending to injured workers and customers — including Olivia King.
Wes King recounted in a post on Facebook getting a call from a stranger while he was in a meeting, telling him his mom had been shot.
“She was shot directly in the chest. EMTs attempted CPR until the hospital,” he wrote. “They tried to save her at the hospital to no avail. I apologize for the graphic details, but this type of crime needs to stop being glossed over and sanitized. No one deserves this.”
Collierville Fire Department Chief Buddy Billings said their equipment and recent training allowed first responders to get in and out quick — something that has proved a challenge in other mass shootings, where extra minutes can mark the difference between life and death.
“They saved lives,” he said.
Gunman kept quiet presence
On Friday, Lane declined to say the shooter’s name in front of TV cameras outside the grocery store where investigators were still collecting evidence, explaining he wanted to deprive him “any notoriety,” a stance that echoes what some other officials have done in recent years following violent rampages. After the news conference, police spokesman Maj. David Townsend wrote down Thang’s name and birth date and held it up for reporters to see.
“Chief Lane didn’t want to say his name,” Townsend told The Post on Friday. “I didn’t want to, either.”
Kroger declined to elaborate on the attacker’s history with the supermarket chain.
“We all want to know the why,” Lane said Friday of Thang’s motive. “But today, less than 24 hours [after the incident], we’re not ready to tell you that.”
He confirmed that police removed electronic devices from the gunman’s apartment that was searched Thursday. The apartment police searched is in a two-story complex a little more than a mile from the Kroger.
Kishore Vanjangi, who has lived in the building for three years, recalled seeing the man who lives in the searched unit on a handful of occasions but said they never spoke at length. Another neighbor also said he’d kept a quiet presence.
“Real scary,” Vanjangi said. “I have small kids, so to send them outside now, I’m getting scared.”
Aung Kyaw, a family friend of Thang’s parents, told the Associated Press as he was leaving the family’s home Friday that the gunman’s parents were Christian refugees who had fled Myanmar and settled in Tennessee, though he did not know the gunman personally.
Kyaw told the AP that Thang’s parents were “very upset” to learn of their son’s alleged crime and were praying for everyone involved.
Numerous attempts by The Post to speak with the shooter’s relatives were unsuccessful on Friday. One person who answered a phone number connected with his family in public records hung up when a reporter identified themselves. Another man identified himself as the shooter’s brother when a reporter called but declined to talk.
‘This is not a normal night’
As investigators searched for a motive, residents in Collierville turned to mourning, holding a vigil outside town hall and remembering King.
Maureen Fraser, Collierville’s vice mayor and a town alderman, described her as a friend and someone who sought to help others.
“Her husband passed away about 16 years ago, so she’s been on her own,” Fraser said in an interview outside King’s home. “She’s strong, she went to church every morning, and I don’t understand why she was shot and killed.”
“You just don’t expect somebody to go that way,” she said, her eyes beginning to well with tears.
Others speculated about what might have triggered the gunman, with one employee, Lawanda Clark, telling WREG she’d overheard managers talk about firing Thang the night before.
“They had to walk the guy out yesterday morning,” she told the station. “His boss came and they were talking to him about what happened. They had to walk him out and he didn’t really want them to walk him out. They said they were going to call the police. But I guess he left at that point.”
A spokesperson for Kroger said the Collierville store would remain closed as law enforcement continues their investigation, which police said is expected to last into Friday evening.
“We are continuing to provide our associates with pay as well as support through our Helping Hands fund. We’ve also initiated counseling services for our associates,” Kristal Howard, a spokesperson for Kroger, said in a statement.
Others turned their attention to the ongoing debate on gun control.
Thursday’s shooting comes after a law passed this year in Tennessee allowing most adults to carry handguns without permits. 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.
Between 2000 and 2020, 78 people were killed and 83 were injured in 28 active shootings at grocery stores, according to data from the FBI.
Rep. Steve Cohen (D), whose congressional district includes a slice of Collierville, said the incident was stunning for what is normally a “very calm suburban neighborhood.”
But he didn’t expect to see any change: “I don’t think anything will change the discussion on Capitol Hill [about gun control]. If somebody got up and killed five different prominent Republicans in the country, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”
At the town’s high school football game Friday evening, Wright Cox, chair of the Collierville school board, said a prayer at midfield, asking for “grace and mercy in our neighborhoods.” The Collierville Dragons football team took the field with 15 American flags.
“This is not a normal night in Collierville,” he said.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.