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Survivors of gym carnage relive the terror

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By The The Tribune-Review
Thursday, Aug. 6, 2009
 

Julia Gazzam lay on the floor in the darkened fitness center, gunshots ringing in her ears and gunpowder stinging her nostrils, waiting for a bullet to find her.

She lifted her head and looked at the gunman, clad in black workout clothes, later identified by police as George Sodini. He stood in front of her, and bodies lay between them.

"I was thinking, 'This is it. This man is going to kill me,' " said Gazzam, 19, of Bon Air. She, her mother Joann, and the stranger she hugged to her were among a few people trapped inside the LA Fitness center aerobics room Tuesday night who emerged uninjured.

The 8 p.m. Latin Impact aerobics dance class began about 10 minutes earlier in the Collier fitness center. It was Jordan Solomon's first time there. As the workout got under way, the Mt. Lebanon High School freshman saw Sodini come through the door and walk to a back corner of the room. He stood five or six feet from Joann Gazzam.

"He had a sweatband on like he was ready to work out," said Solomon, 14.

Solomon saw him place a duffel bag on the floor and shuffle through it.

Then the lights went out.

"I've never been in that class, so I thought it was part of the dance routine," Solomon said.

'Shooting and shooting'

In the darkness, the gunman pulled out a 9 mm pistol.

One of the first shots smashed into the mirror in front of Julia Gazzam. Solomon turned and saw a silhouette take aim at the front of the classroom. The gunman fired again.

Solomon joined a crowd sprinting from the room. She ran through the main lobby and screamed, "Get out of here! Shooting!" Gazzam and the girl beside her dropped to the ground and grabbed each other. Her mother jumped behind a stack of equipment used for step-aerobics.

"He just kept shooting and shooting," Julia Gazzam said.

It seemed random. Elizabeth Gannon, 49, of Green Tree, and Heidi Overmier, 46, of Carnegie, died in the room. Jody Billingsley, 37, of Mt. Lebanon died later.

One of the bullets pierced dance instructor Mary Primis' left arm. Another hit her shoulder blade and shattered. The fragments lodged in her chest and her lung.

Had Sodini walked in at the beginning of the class, he would have heard Primis, 26, tell everyone in the room about the baby she and her husband just learned she was carrying.

Primis collapsed. As she lay in a pool of blood, she held her breath and listened to what she thought was the gunman moving through the room.

"She wanted him to think she was dead," Primis' husband, Alex, said Wednesday at Allegheny General Hospital, where his wife was recovering in the trauma intensive care unit.

Eight other women — the target of Sodini's rage and frustration, according to his blog — were shot.

The Gazzams say he never moved from his place at the back of the room. They described his face as "serene."

"He looked like he had a job to do, and he was focused," Joann Gazzam said.

The shooting continued, as Sodini emptied what police said was a 30-round clip, replaced it and began firing again. It seemed to last longer than a minute.

When it got quiet

Then came a lull.

Joann and Julia Gazzam picked up their heads and looked for each other. They made eye contact, Joann from behind the equipment pile and Julia from under a punching bag suspended from the ceiling.

"I put my fingers to my lips and told her to be quiet and to keep her head down," Joann Gazzam said.

"There was no way I was going to make a sound," Julia Gazzam said. "The girl I was hanging on to, I told her to be quiet."

She made shushing sounds and clasped her hand over the girl's mouth. They waited.

"I saw him sit down," she said.

He seemed to be organizing the things strewn around him, arranging them to look the way he thought they should.

He looked up, lifted a gun to his head, fired and slumped over.

"I said, 'He's dead.' But I wasn't sure, so we laid there for a few minutes," Julia Gazzam said. "Then we all ran."

As they fled, they saw the bodies. There were at least three of them, the Gazzams said.

Feeling helpless

Paramedics and police began to arrive. An ambulance rushed Jody Billingsley to the emergency room of St. Clair Hospital in Mt. Lebanon, where she died 45 minutes after being shot.

Alex Primis rushed to LA Fitness. A woman from his wife's dance class called him after she fled, telling him his wife was shot.

"It was the scariest thing I ever experienced," he said. "I just couldn't believe it."

He arrived at the gym, but paramedics had taken his wife to the hospital. He drove to Allegheny General, eight miles away, knowing nothing about her injuries, or if she was alive.

The couple married six years ago and live in Moon. Mary Primis teaches fitness classes at other area gyms and works as a nurse at Sewickley Valley Hospital, her husband said. The pregnancy, 10 weeks along, is their first.

"You feel helpless," he said. "There's nothing I could have done."

In the emergency room, Primis found his wife covered in blood but awake and coherent. She told her husband she did not know the gunman.

Doctors at Allegheny General were conducting scan tests yesterday to assess Primis' condition and rule out further damage. The bullet fragments lodged within her could make her susceptible to complications such as infections or bleeding, said Dr. Aurelio Rodriguez, director of trauma surgery.

The baby was unharmed, he said.

"She should be OK," Rodriguez said, adding that an obstetrics doctor evaluated the baby. "She was very lucky. It could have been lethal."

"It was a miracle that she got out with the injuries that she did," said Alex Primis.

Primis said his wife awakened and became upset as she relived the shooting.

"She kept replaying the scene over and over in her head," he said.

It left the Gazzams "traumatized," said Julia.

"All night I couldn't get that visual out of my head. I will never get that image out of my head," she said. "I couldn't stop hearing all the gunshots. I couldn't stop smelling all the gunpowder. When I ran out, I turned around and saw bodies on the floor.

Four shooting victims were in serious condition at UPMC Mercy said spokeswoman Linda Ross. Two at AGH were in fair condition, according to spokesman Dan Laurent. Two patients taken to St. Clair Hospital in Mt. Lebanon were released, according to a spokesman.

"I thought they were all dead," Julia said. "It was surreal. It is still hard to imagine."

By Jason Cato, Luis Fábregas, Chris Togneri and Mike Wereschagin

How a tragedy unfolded

Allegheny County Police Superintendent Charles Moffatt released the following details about the rampage Tuesday at the LA Fitness center in Collier, which left three women dead and nine others wounded. The gunman, George Sodini, 48, of Scott killed himself.

Timeline:

• 11:40 a.m. Sodini enters LA Fitness. Police are unsure how long he stays.

• 7:40 p.m. Sodini enters LA Fitness for a second time and leaves.

• 7:45 p.m. Sodini makes a cell phone call. Police decline to identify the person.

• 7:56 p.m. He swipes an entry card and walks in to LA Fitness for the final time, dressed in a black workout outfit and carrying a black duffle bag. Four guns are inside the bag.

• 8 p.m. More than two dozen women begin the weekly Latin Impact dance class. Sodini enters the room, walks to the left about 10 feet and turns off the lights.

• Sodini pulls out a 9 mm semiautomatic pistol and opens fire. He uses another 9 mm gun, but leaves 12 bullets in the clip. At least 36 shots are fired.

• Sodini puts a .45-caliber revolver to the left side of his head and fires. He dies instantly. Police find a fourth gun -- a fully loaded .32-caliber revolver in the duffle bag along with a typed note and two extra ammunition clips.

• 8:16 p.m. Allegheny County 911 dispatches Collier police to the gym.

Investigation:

• Sodini had no relationship with any of the women in the aerobics class.

• A typed note found in Sodini's duffle bag, and a similar handwritten note at home, describe his lack of relationships with women.

• Sodini bought his guns legally and had a permit to carry weapons. Investigators are examining the fourth firearm.

• Police find four rifles at Sodini's home on Orchard Spring Road.

• Investigators are examining Sodini's computer to see if he had contact with anyone else concerning his plans.

• Sodini inquired how to turn off the lights during a prior visit to the club.

• Police are reviewing the 911 tapes.

• Collier police seized several sets of keys, cell phones and other belongings of people who were at the club. Anyone still missing their items should call Collier police at 412-276-5051 between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. After 4:30, call 412-279-6911.

Irony of National Night Out

Violence in the Pittsburgh area has plagued National Night Out, an annual event generally held in early August to support neighborhood anti-crime efforts.

Aug. 4, 2009

On the day of National Night Out, George Sodini of Scott gunned down three women and wounded nine who were working out at the LA Fitness center in the Great Southern Shopping Center in Collier. Sodini committed suicide.

Aug. 6, 2008

Police responded to three shootings in two hours in New Kensington. One man was hospitalized for a gunshot wound to the face; two others were arrested and charged with weapons violations. All the shootings happened on Fourth Avenue after that year's National Night Out.

July 31, 2006

On the eve of many National Night Out events in Allegheny County, eight people were shot in a Strip District nightclub packed with about 400 people dancing. One man was shot eight times. No one died.

Aug. 3, 2004

Hours after National Night Out events ended, two people were fatally shot in Squirrel Hill. Elsewhere in the city, a teenager and woman were wounded in a shooting in Allentown; a shooting occurred outside a bar in Oakland; a man and woman were locked in the trunks of separate vehicles during a burglary in Greenfield; and police responded to a stabbing and attempted rape in Mt. Washington.

Source: Tribune-Review research

Additional Information:

Victims

Killed:

• Heidi Overmier, 46, of Carnegie

• Elizabeth Gannon, 49, of Green Tree

• Jody Billingsley, 37, of Mt. Lebanon

Wounded:

• Lisa Fleeher, 27, critically injured

• Ashley Ferragonio, 23, released from UPMC Mercy on Wednesday

• Jackquilyne Gallagher, 25, seriously injured

• Srimeenakish Sankar, 31, seriously injured

• Gretchen Lewis, 26, critically injured

• Melina Williams, 22, seriously injured

• Mary Primis, 26, critically injured, remained in Allegheny General Hospital last night

• Heather Sherba, 22, seriously injured

• Stephanie Latusick, 33, treated and released Tuesday night

Source: Allegheny County police

 

 
 


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