Survivors of the Chicago-area shooting describe their escape as gunfire erupted

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HIGHLAND PARK, Illinois – At first, Gabriela Martinez-Vicencio thought that “pop-pop-pop” Sound was fireworks.

She and her 9-year-old daughter were standing on a downtown street in this leafy Chicago suburb watching a Fourth of July parade Monday when they heard it. As she rolled onto 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 dressed in Stars and Stripes and set up lawn chairs for an age-old patriotic celebration in a suburb best known for being the backdrop to classic films like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

But instantaneously, the day’s celebrations were altered by a tragedy all too common in the nation celebrating them. A mass shooting left six dead, 40 wounded and another American city destroyed.

It began around 10 a.m. as floats made their way down the parade route in downtown Highland Park, a town of about 30,000 on the shores of Lake Michigan. The shooter appeared to be aiming at the assembled crowd, his perch atop a building giving him a vantage point over the parade.

Dee Dee Straus, 64, was sitting with her brother and sister-in-law outside a Walker Bros. restaurant when the shooting began. She felt it echo off the buildings and saw branches falling from trees.

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

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

Straus and her family rushed toward their home a block away, passing a pool of blood and a man wearing a bloodied T-shirt as they joined a stampede of panicked people trying to flee.

“You’ve never seen so many people running in your life,” Straus said.

Martinez-Vicencio and her daughter Nina were in the fleeing crowd. Martinez-Vicencio was back on his feet when bullets slammed into the sidewalk. She pushed her child to the entrance of a nearby sporting goods store.

They took shelter inside, Martinez-Vicencio clutching a trembling Nina. The shots could even be heard from inside, she said. It probably took two or three minutes, said Martinez-Vicencio, “but it felt like an eternity.” She called her ex-husband, Nina’s father, who ran to the scene to find her.

In hell, a man hid his son in a dumpster. Alexander Sandoval told WGN television he had asked people nearby to stay with the boy while he went back to find the rest of his family.

When he came back, he saw another little boy being carried away.

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

Bodies lay strewn on the sidewalk along storefronts, strewn alongside fallen chairs, children’s bicycles decorated with crepe paper, and miniature American flags.

Those who could help – many of them nurses and doctors – tried by applying pressure and tourniquets to the wounded. Paramedics soon discovered that others were dead.

David Baum, an ob/gyn at Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital who cared for the fallen, described the injuries he saw as “horrifying.”

“Those bullets gutted people,” Baum said.

For those who managed to escape, there was a rush to give account to friends and family. Even in their homes, the fear lingered. The shooter had stopped firing when police arrived. Then he escaped.

The shooter remained at large until Monday evening, hours after the first shots were fired. Authorities urged Highland Park residents to stay indoors as they were unsure if he was staying in town. 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 leading them on a brief chase.

Brad Schneider, 35, and his family, huddled together in their home, nervous, ready to run if they “see anyone walking sketchy in the street.” He and his wife had already sprinted half a mile from the parade to their car, their young children in their arms.

“My daughter yells and asks is there a fire or a villain?” said Schneider. “My daughter is asking questions and I don’t know what to say or do.”

They had thought the area was so safe.

Martinez-Vicencio thought so too. After May’s 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 gunman 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, Michigan and Bailey from Minneapolis. Survivors of the Chicago-area shooting describe their escape as gunfire erupted

James Brien

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