Above: Russell Hill and his girlfriend, Amanda Gomez.
Jesus Fierros was working the assembly line when he heard the gunshots. At first, he thought the staccato popping was just another everyday sound inside Excel Industries, a lawnmower plant in the small town of Hesston, Kan. But then he saw his coworkers sprinting towards the exit.
As workers abandoned their posts, the plant’s machinery shuddered to a halt. Gunshots again rang out in the suddenly silent factory.
That’s when Fierros felt something tear into his leg.
“I thought the machinery exploded,” he told The Washington Post early Friday morning. “I didn’t think it was a bullet or a gunshot. It just hit me. Then the pain came and I looked down and there was blood. Then I ran.”
As he tried to limp towards the exit, Fierros could hear the gunshots getting ever closer. But even as he feared the shooter would find him and he finish him off, his thoughts kept drifting to someone else: his girlfriend, who worked barely 50 feet away.
“All I thought about was making sure my girlfriend made it out,” he said. “Nothing else was really going through my mind.”
Outside the factory, Elsy Chavez desperately searched for her boyfriend. Then she turned around and saw him.
“We were almost right next to each other, we just didn’t notice it,” she told The Post.
Together, the couple learned what had just happened. One of the factory’s employees, identified by law enforcement officials and eye witnesses as a 38-year-old painter named Cedric Ford, had gone on a bloody rampage. Beginning on his way to work, and then continuing inside Excel, the lone gunman had shot at least 17 people, killing three.
The shooting spree only ended with the arrival of the police, who fatally shot the gunman.
Excel is far from the first work place to be targeted by a mass shooter. But this time, the shooter did more than damage a factory. He tore apart a close-knit web of coworkers. As one of the few, large employers in a town of 3,700, Excel was more of a community than a mere building. Employees worked on various machine lines, growing close to the people on either side of them.
The factory wasn’t just where you worked. It was where you made friends. And in some cases, it was where you fell in love.
Fierros and Chavez weren’t the only couple separated by the chaos.
Russell Hill had met his girlfriend, Amanda Gomez, at Excel. Like Fierros, Hill worked on the assembly line. Gomez worked next to where employees painted the lawnmowers.
That is where the gunman struck first.
It was a familiar spot for the 38-year-old Ford. He had he worked on the paint line, spraying lawn mowers yellow. He even posted photos to his Facebook page of him in a paint suit. Now he allegedly turned his gun on the very people with whom he should have been working.
Cedric Ford was a painter at Excel Industries.
Hill and Gomez had earplugs in to block out the sound of heavy machinery and speeding forklifts, but they both heard the popping sounds echo around the factory.
Working in different parts of the plant, their panic took them in different directions.
At first, Gomez thought it was one of the mowers backfiring. But then a coworker ran past yelling, “Somebody has a gun, everybody run out.”
“We all joke around with each other,” she told The Post. “I thought he was kidding.”
When she peered over at the paint line, however, she saw her cousin, Melissa Torres, sprinting towards the exit. (Although Gomez couldn’t see it, Torres had been shot in the hand, she said.)
“I looked over and saw her and was like, OK, if this is real, I’m going to get out of here,” she said.
She ran towards one door, only to be told by frantic coworkers that the shooter was on the other side. So she turned and ran in the other direction, past hastily abandoned assembly lines, as gunshots continued to ring out.
When she reached the quality control area of the plant, Gomez stopped dead in her tracks. On an orange cart, turned into a makeshift gurney, lay her nephew, Maurice Gomez.
Maurice Gomez, Amanda’s nephew, was seriously injured in the shooting. His wife had recently given birth to a baby daughter.
Maurice had just had a baby girl a week earlier. Now he was pale and sweating intensely as blood poured from three bullet wounds to his back. Shards of glass lay on his face from where he had been wearing his painting mask when shot.
“Instantly when I saw him … my heart fell out of my ass,” she said. “I went into panic mode, because of the situation already happening and then seeing him made it so much more real.”
As other coworkers carried the gurney outside, Gomez desperately tried to keep her nephew talking.
She hadn’t seen his baby, so she asked him about his newborn daughter.
“What does she weigh?” she asked. “What does she look like?”
But Maurice was fading.
“He reached for my hand and was like, ‘It hurts.’ That’s all he kept saying. ‘It hurts,'” Gomez said. “At that point he started crying and got a little panicky.”
At one point, Maurice told her he couldn’t feel his legs.
Gomez helped load her nephew into the back of a jeep belonging to a Sheriff’s deputy, who then whisked him away to the hospital.
As soon as he was out of sight, however, her mind snapped back to her boyfriend.
Was he alive?
A photo Ford posted to Facebook on Feb. 15 appears to show him holding a pistol and an AK-47, the weapons allegedly used in the Excel Industries shooting.
When Russell Hill heard the gunshots he, too, thought they were a mower backfiring. But when he heard the sound again, and again, he reconsidered.
“I looked at a coworker to my right. He was giving me a look I had never seen before,” Russell told The Post. “The next thing I knew, everybody from the front of the line was running at me. Somebody yelled, ‘Shots fired, somebody is shooting.’ I just followed the group through the back door.”
Outside, Hill followed the herd of people headed towards the railroad tracks. Like them, he ducked for cover on the other side of a knoll, next to the tracks.
Before he could look for Amanda, however, a male friend from the plant came running towards him. The coworker’s arm was squirting blood, Hill said, and he also had a gunshot wound to his stomach.
“I’ve been shot, I’ve been shot twice, once in the gut, once in the arm,” the man said.
Hill and another coworker, a veteran with medical training, immediately began trying to stop the bleeding. The stomach wound had gone clean through and wasn’t bleeding much, he said, so they focused on the man’s mangled arm.
Hill stripped off his t-shirt and pressed it to the wound, but blood sprayed all over both men.
After a few minutes, paramedics arrived. As they attended to another victim, one who had been shot four times, Hill tried to keep his injured friend alive.
“He was saying he couldn’t feel his arm anymore,” Hill said. “I was trying to joke with him and tell him it was just cold outside.”
“I just told him, ‘You’re gonna be next. You’re gonna be next.'”
Paramedics came and hoisted his friend onto a stretcher, then slid him into the back of an ambulance. There was no room for Hill, they said.
Without his friend to attend to, his thoughts returned to Amanda. He had lost his phone. Police and ambulances were rushing everywhere. People were screaming.
Nearby, Gomez was spinning in circles looking for him. Suddenly a friend called her name. She turned. The friend pointed.
“I look over and I see Russell, which put me in a panic too because he’s covered in blood,” she said, her voice breaking as she remembered being reunited.
“I finally got to him and the first thing he said to me was, ‘It’s not my blood.'”
Like Gomez, Chavez was startled to see her boyfriend covered in blood. Unlike Hill, Fierros really had been shot.
“I was really scared. I couldn’t believe it. I just turned around to see if I could see him and thank god I saw him right away,” she said. “His whole leg, his whole side was covered in blood.”
She and a coworker carried Fierros behind a trailer and laid him on the cold Kansas ground.
Soon, paramedics arrived and bandaged his leg. Then the couple took an ambulance to a hospital in nearby Newton, Kan. Speaking to The Post from his hospital bed, Fierros said early Friday morning that he felt “fine” and expected to be released later in the day.
The two couples had survived, bloody but reunited.
Maurice Gomez also survived. After worrying that he might be paralyzed from the bullets to his back, Amanda Gomez said her nephew is expected to walk again.
The shooting had thrown her factory into chaos, separated her from her boyfriend and seriously injured two of her family members.
In the early hours of Friday, as Gomez and Hill tried to come to grips with the horror that had just overtaken their workplace, the couple turned on the television.
“We’re watching the news,” she said. “I’m watching it and I kind of step out of my body, like it’s somebody else’s news.
“But then I remember: that was us. That happened to us today.”