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Colorado Springs citizens: Mass shootings, tragedy don't define the city or its people

November 29, 2015 Updated: December 2, 2015 at 2:10 pm
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photo - People react to the speakers Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015, during a vigil for University of Colorado at Colorado Springs police officer Garrett Swasey, 44, who was killed in the shooting at the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Colorado Springs, Colo., Friday, Nov. 27, 2015. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
People react to the speakers Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015, during a vigil for University of Colorado at Colorado Springs police officer Garrett Swasey, 44, who was killed in the shooting at the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Colorado Springs, Colo., Friday, Nov. 27, 2015. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

Again.

It's one thing to experience disaster for the first time. A wildfire, a flood, a mass shooting. A community gets through them all because it must, because it can do nothing else.

But to live through them again is a different challenge. That's when the weight of previous experience is heaviest. Living through a disaster the second time requires a unique kind of courage that sees what it's going into - something hard, inspiring and transformative.

Ultimately though, the difference between a community's first disaster, its first mass shooting and its second is negligible. The community still pulls together, still gets through it.

"This is a town I know will support everyone involved," Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers said Saturday morning as he surveyed the scene of Friday's deadly shooting - the city's second mass shooting in a month. "This town will rally."

The weight of "again" sat on the shoulders of Laurie Works on Saturday morning, as a procession of police cars passed while she walked to Penrose-St. Francis Hospital. In her mind, police cars portend tragedy.

Her feelings were understandable. The deadly Black Friday shootings at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs left Works agitated. But years of local disasters have left her, the survivor of a 2007 Colorado Springs mass shooting, feeling vulnerable.

- Grief expert gives Colorado Springs seminar at opportune time

In recent years, El Paso County has a bleak record of dual disasters - two summers of wildfires and two summers of deadly floods. Another deadly pair has been added to city's record: two mass shootings, with six dead, less than a month apart.

"It kind of reminds me, actually, of when we had two fires two summers in a row," Works said.

Years ago, smoke triggered traumatic memories for many El Paso County residents who lived through the 2012 Waldo Canyon and 2013 Black Forest fires, which collectively killed four people and destroyed 835 homes.

Now, far more common things might trigger trauma: police cars, ambulances and sirens.

As law enforcement officers traded shots for hours with a gunman barricaded in Planned Parenthood on Friday, Colorado Springs again made headlines. National media swarmed the city; the Internet was transfixed by the action. Once again, police and firefighters knew what to do with multiple agencies on hand to help - a skill they've learned from two years of explosive wildfire.

But the city's response to its disasters has transformed it until resiliency has become a point of pride.

"When you have things like a Waldo Canyon fire, a Black Forest fire, a tragedy like this, a distinction of why we're Colorado Springs is I don't have to ask for (help)," Police Chief Pete Carey said Saturday. "They've already come out, they're already rolling their sleeves up and helping out."

From the moment the first bullets flew on Friday, the narratives of a new Colorado Springs disaster had begun. The community was buoyed by tales of resilience and heroism. The nation was transfixed by the political posturing.

But on Saturday, Colorado Springs residents grappled with a new city, one suddenly like Newtown, Roseburg, Charlotte and Aurora. But unlike the other cities, Colorado Springs' mass shootings were weeks apart.

The main question hovering over El Paso County on Saturday was why.

That thought haunted Ethan Wade on Friday as his family drove to a belated Thanksgiving celebration. The 20-year-old University of Colorado at Colorado Springs student watched through his phone as the shooting unfolded on Twitter.

Within minutes, his life became a nexus of horror. Wade spent hours worried about friends who work at Planned Parenthood. Later, he recognized the face of officer Garrett Swasey, someone widely known on the UCCS campus. And Wade remembered how he felt on Halloween, when Noah Harpham killed three people.

And so Wade tweeted: "People are tweeting about how the #COSshooting doesn't represent our city but I'm starting to feel like it does."

"I meet people from other parts of the country and they hear 'Colorado Springs,' and that's their immediate thought - that we live in the heart of this conservative religious section of American," Wade said. "And I think people's perceptions are fueled by this (shooting)."

To the outside world, Colorado Springs appears a haven for extremism, a perception reinforced by the Black Friday shooting. But for longtime residents like Laura Eurich, there is more to the city.

"I've lived in Colorado Springs since 1990 and that's not the Colorado Springs I live in," said Eurich by text on Saturday. "I'm doing what I can using social media to try to debunk the stereotype."

For those who love it, Colorado Springs is a sprawling city that in many ways feels like a small town. It's known for ties to the U.S. Olympic Committee, its military bases and expansive mountain views. But whatever Colorado Springs was before, it will now be known as something else.

"This morning I purchased a house in Colorado Springs, signifying my investment in and commitment to my own future and the future of this community," Kristy Milligan wrote on Facebook on Saturday. "I was elated, exuberant ... for almost an hour."

Suddenly, Colorado Springs is the kind of place where random gunmen walk the streets and invade health clinics, picking off innocent bystanders or law enforcement officers.

Wade, who has lived here since he was 1, fears Friday's shooting will add to the city's tarnished reputation. He was not alone.

"Our mountain setting is beautiful and our people are kind and generous," state Rep. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, said Saturday. "I ask people around the country and around the world to not judge Colorado Springs by the actions of one individual whose motives, whatever they were, cannot possibly justify murder."

Unlike many, Works is practiced in not letting her life be defined by murder, although she can never escape the mark it left on her life.

In December 2007, she watched as two of her sisters, Stephanie and Rachel, were gunned down in the parking lot of New Life Church. On Friday, two weeks before the eighth anniversary of her sisters' deaths, Laurie's father, David, was glued to police radios, listening for updates in the struggle to bring down Robert Dear, the suspected Planned Parenthood gunman.

Then on Saturday, Works and some friends took food to emergency room workers at Penrose-St. Francis Hospital. As she walked through the frigid morning, Works felt the worst kind of deja vu - the kind that is more than just a vague memory. She remembered heading to Penrose when one of her sisters was dying - the weather was the same.

That's when she saw police cars.

But Works doesn't describe herself as traumatized. Whether conscious, she describes these haunting moments - when the ghosts of her sisters, past shootings and wildfire smoke call to her - as profound experiences. It all reminds her of the need to stay connected to people.

"I feel like, especially in our city, we can easily attack each other," she said. "I think it's vital that we remember that we are all people. ... I think that's what's part of moving on, is redefining ourselves. We can't toss away all the things that have happened here. In a lot of people's minds that's what we are defined by."

Pastor Ben Broadbent faced the same struggle on Saturday, namely a Sunday sermon at First Congregational Church that he didn't want to be defined by the Black Friday shooting. The Oct. 31 shooting happened near Broadbent's home, and when the pastor was chosen as the temporary spokesman by some of Harpham's family, he found himself comforting both the victims and the gunman's family.

But for Sunday he wanted to set aside anger and politics, so Broadbent kept his pre-shooting plan for the first day of Advent - a sermon about hope.

"I will certainly mention this, but it's not going to hijack my entire sermon," he said Saturday.

Broadbent planned to talk about Jeremiah 33, a Bible chapter that depicts Judah and Jerusalem as desolate, violent and in need of security.

"Jerusalem is in a world of hurt. Israel destroyed. ... The worst things that could happen in that moment," Broadbent said. "And Jeremiah says: 'The days are surely coming when there will be safety and security in Judah and Jerusalem'."

Jeremiah gives Jerusalem a new name, one that inspires hope in those trodden down by constant strife. It's an exercise Broadbent will try on Sunday.

"So I am giving cities some new names - maybe Colorado Springs will be one we should rename," he said. "Maybe something like, 'People Here Only Die of Old Age,' or we will rename it 'People Respect Each Other's Differences.' Or, 'No One Owns a Gun.'"

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