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James Shaw Jr. on why he rushed the Waffle House shooter: ‘He was going to have to work to kill me’

James Shaw Jr. wrestled away Travis Reinking's rifle in a restaurant shooting in Antioch, Tenn., on April 22 that left four dead. (Video: Patrick Martin, Allie Caren, Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

Moments before the first shot, James Shaw Jr. was watching a Waffle House employee wash dishes, stacking them higher and higher. When the first shot was fired, Shaw thought the tower of plates had come crashing down, he would later recount at a news conference. At 3:25 a.m. Sunday, police cars stormed toward the restaurant in the Nashville neighborhood of Antioch.

Shaw, 29, had gone to a club with his best friend Saturday night. Afterward, the two went to a Waffle House on Bell Road, but it was crowded, so they drove to the one at 3571 Murfreesboro Pike.

The Metro Nashville Police Department said that the suspect, Travis Reinking, arrived in the Waffle House parking lot at 3:19 a.m. Sunday and sat in his pickup truck for about four minutes staring at the customers inside. Then he got out, wearing only a green jacket and carrying a AR-15 rifle, and fatally shot two people outside the Waffle House, police said. He then went into the restaurant and continued shooting, they said. Two more people would die. The suspect, feared to be armed and wanted for murder, has not been found.

At the news conference Sunday afternoon, Nashville police spokesman Don Aaron said that as the gunman was shooting, “a patron of the restaurant, James Shaw Jr., ran to the restroom area of the Waffle House, saw that the shooting had stopped, and saw an opportunity to intervene. Mr. Shaw wrestled the rifle away from Reinking and tossed it into another part of the restaurant to end the gunfire. Mr. Shaw saved, obviously, many lives in his heroic action.”

After the third gunshot, the window burst, Shaw said, and Waffle House employees scattered. Looking back, he saw someone lying on the ground at the door. He jumped toward the restroom, he would later tell the Tennessean newspaper, and stood behind a swivel door, where a bullet grazed his arm.

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That’s when Shaw decided to act.

“I kind of made up my mind, because there was no way to lock that door, that if it was going to come down to it, he was going to have to work to kill me,” he said.

When he heard the shooting stop, he rushed out.

Shaw, who works for AT&T, said the shooter was either reloading the gun or the firearm had jammed, and he wrestled it away and threw it over the counter. Still fearing for his life, Shaw said he rushed toward the front door of the restaurant, pushing the shooter out also.

The gunman then left, Shaw said.

Police said the suspect took off his jacket less than a block from the restaurant. Two magazines were found in the pockets.

“He clearly came armed with a lot of firepower intended to devastate the south Nashville area,” Aaron said.

Shaw went back to see if his friend was alive (he was uninjured). “It was so fast,” Shaw said. “I hope nobody has to be in those shoes again. It was almost light-switch-type fast.”

It was only when he was in ambulance, when a paramedic asked him about himself, that he remembered his 4-year-old daughter.

According to the Tennessean, he was taken to TriStar Southern Hills Medical Center about 4 a.m., where he was treated for minor injures and then released at 7:30 a.m. A girl at the hospital told him that “you saved my life,” he told the newspaper.

Nearly 12 hours after the shooting, Shaw spoke at a news conference where Nashville Mayor David Briley and others thanked him. Walt Ehmer, the president and chief executive of Waffle House, said he wanted to personally thank Shaw.

“You don’t get to meet many heroes in life, Mr. Shaw, but you are a hero, you are my hero,” Ehmer said at the news conference. “I’ve talked to some of those people you saved today, and they will think of you for the rest of their days, as will I. We’re forever in your debt.”

Shaw rejected this description of his actions.

“I want people to know that I did that completely out of a selfish act,” he said. “I was completely doing it just to save myself.”

“I’m not a hero. I’m just a regular person, and I think anybody could have did what I did if they are just pushed into that kind of cage,” Shaw said as he became emotional. “You have to either react or you’re going to fold, and I chose to react because I didn’t see any other way of living, and that’s all I wanted to do. I just wanted to live.”

After leaving the hospital, Shaw went home, changed his clothes, and then attended church with his family about 10:30 a.m., according to the Tennessean.

When asked about it later, he said he wasn’t particularly religious. He went to church to get past the shooting, he said.

“I don’t want this to be the focal point of my life,” he said. “I don’t want this to be a major moment in my life.”

Kristine Phillips contributed to this report.

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