The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As gunfire explodes in Chicago suburb, ‘nowhere is safe’

Chairs and bicycles lie abandoned after people fled the scene of a mass shooting at a Fourth of July celebration and parade in Highland Park, Ill., on Monday. (Tannen Maury/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. — At first, Gabriela Martinez-Vicencio thought the “pop-pop-pop” sound was fireworks.

She and her 9-year-old daughter were standing along a downtown street in this leafy Chicago suburb, watching a Fourth of July parade on Monday when they heard it. Turning to her side, she saw the unthinkable: a gunman on a rooftop, firing into the crowd.

“Everything in me was like, ‘Run,’ ” Martinez-Vicencio, 33, told The Washington Post. “But my body just betrayed me, and I fell to the ground.”

Parade-goers had dressed in stars and stripes, and set up lawn chairs for an age-old patriotic celebration in a suburb best known as the backdrop of movie classics like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

But in an instant, the day’s festivities were transformed by a tragedy all too common in the nation they were celebrating. A mass shooting left six dead, 40 wounded and another American city shattered.

Multiple people were killed and injured in a shooting at a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Ill. on July 4. (Video: The Washington Post)

It started around 10 a.m., as floats wound along the parade route in downtown Highland Park, a city of about 30,000 on the shore of Lake Michigan. The gunman seemed to target the gathered crowd, his perch atop a building giving him a vantage point above the parade.

Dee Dee Straus, 64, was sitting in front of a restaurant, Walker Bros., with her brother and sister-in-law, when the gunfire began. She felt it reverberate off the buildings and saw branches fall off trees.

“We didn’t think it was gunfire until it stopped and started again,” Straus said in an interview.

She felt debris strike her skin, then saw people on the ground, bleeding. “Let’s get the hell out of here,” someone said.

Straus and her family began dashing toward her home a block away, passing a pool of blood and a man with a bloodied T-shirt as they joined a stampede of panicked people trying to escape.

“You never saw so many people running in your life,” Straus said.

Martinez-Vicencio and her daughter, Nina, were in the fleeing crowd. As bullets hit the pavement, Martinez-Vicencio had scrambled back to her feet. She pushed her child toward the entrance of a nearby sporting goods store.

They took shelter inside, Martinez-Vicencio clutching a trembling Nina. The gunfire was audible even from inside, she said. It went on probably another two or three minutes, Martinez-Vicencio said, “but it felt like forever.” She called her ex-husband, Nina’s father, who started racing to the scene to find them.

In the pandemonium, one man hid his son in a dumpster. Alexander Sandoval told TV station WGN that he asked people nearby to stay with the boy while he went back to find the rest of his family.

As he returned, he saw another little boy being carried away.

“And that was the worst part of all this, because being a father and hiding your children and seeing a little boy carried away — I can’t imagine what that family’s going through right now,” Sandoval told the TV station.

Bodies were down on the sidewalk along the storefronts, strewn beside toppled chairs, crepe-paper decorated children’s bicycles and miniature American flags.

Those who could help — many of them nurses and doctors — tried to, applying pressure and tourniquets to the wounded. Paramedics soon began determining that others were dead.

David Baum, an OB/GYN at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, who tended to the fallen, described the injuries he saw as “horrific.”

“Those bullets eviscerated people,” Baum said.

For those who managed to escape, there was a rush to account for friends and family. Even inside their homes, the fear lingered. The gunman had stopped shooting once police arrived. Then he got away.

Into Monday evening, hours after the first shots were fired, the shooter remained at large. Authorities were telling Highland Park residents to stay indoors, unsure whether he remained within the city. Police identified 22-year-old Robert E. Crimo III as a “person of interest” in the attack, and took him into custody Monday night after he led them on a brief chase.

Brad Schneider, 35, and his family huddled in their home, on edge, ready to run if they spotted “anyone sketchy going down the street.” He and his wife had already sprinted a half-mile from the parade to their car, their young children in their arms.

“My daughter is screaming and asking is there a fire, or is there a bad guy?” Schneider said. “My daughter is asking questions, and I don’t know what to say or what to do.”

They had thought the area was so safe.

Martinez-Vicencio thought so, too. In the aftermath of the May mass shooting at a Texas elementary school, her biggest fear had been sending her daughter back to class this fall.

But after hiding from the shooter at the parade, and then having to avert her eyes from the carnage as she and her daughter fled, she had a sudden realization.

“Nowhere is safe,” she said.

Shammas reported from Grand Rapids, Mich. and Bailey from Minneapolis.