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A shooting: Just like yesterday

by Jack Saltzberg

December 20, 2012 | 2:06 pm

A flag flies at half mast near the funeral of six-year-old Benjamin Wheeler who was killed December 14 in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 20. Photo by Eric Thayer/Reuters

A flag flies at half mast near the funeral of six-year-old Benjamin Wheeler who was killed December 14 in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 20. Photo by Eric Thayer/Reuters

When I heard about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I shut my office door and wept.  And I couldn’t help but remember another day 13 years ago. 

I was in a meeting.  My assistant interrupted and said that Sharon, my ex-wife, needed me urgently.  Sharon was screaming: “There’s a shooting at the JCC!!!”  I grabbed my keys and sped 20 miles to the North Valley Jewish Community Center.

My thoughts are still a blur.  As if in slow motion, I drove frantically.  I made all sorts of promises to G-d.  I don’t remember what they were.

The freeways were uncharacteristically empty as I hit 100 mph.  The Highway Patrol passed me as they headed to the same location.  

I recalled my days in an elite Israeli anti-terrorist unit.  Heading toward a rescue operation we were always in control: adrenaline pumping, but calm.  We had practiced thousands of hours.  But now, my thoughts bounced between my seven and eight year olds and the wounded Israeli children I saw in a terrorist attack a decade earlier.

Following the LAPD, I circumvented roadblocks for miles.  I met up with my ex-wife and other parents behind a police barricade.  We looked toward the summer camp and school that was our children’s safe haven; now, everyone’s worst nightmare.

As police and news helicopters flew overhead, we screamed, pleaded: “Where are our children?!!!”  There were no answers. 

Finally, a police officer came to our group with a list.  She said that all the children accounted for are on her list; she began loudly reading the names.  Sharon and I waited impatiently to hear our children’s names.  They never came.

I grabbed the list from the officer’s hands and scrolled down the names.  My children were not listed.

Then, as if my world had ended, sheer impulse overcame me.  I broke through the barricade and ran toward the building to get to my children.  Nothing would stop me ... except the police, as they wrestled me to the ground.   I was handcuffed and put into a police car.

I kept asking, “Where are my children?  Where are my children?” I repeated their names.  The police wouldn’t, or couldn’t answer.  Five ... ten ... twenty minutes.  I sat in the police car, praying that my children were unharmed, but hope was fading.  Still handcuffed, a policeman lectured me as to why I shouldn’t have done what I did.  I told him I’ll remember that the next time my children are in a shooting. 

After what seemed like hours, but was probably 30 minutes, the police brought me inside building.  I was met by the Chief of Police and they removed my handcuffs.  He apologized, then told me that my two children were okay.  They were at a nearby park. 

I broke down and sobbed uncontrollably.

We drove to the park.  My kids saw us and began screaming “Abba!  Abba!” (“Daddy”).  They were in shock... not from the shooting, but because my sister told them I was arrested.

Our attention immediately turned toward the wounded.  Our friend, Isabelle, was shot.  A counselor.  And three children.  I heard that one child was barely clinging to life.

Over the next few weeks, the puzzle of what really happened came together.  A white supremacist traveled from Washington with the aim of killing Jews.  He attended an AA meeting in a church.  When he left the meeting, he looked next door and saw the Jewish Center.  He returned the next day, entered, and began shooting--more than 70 rounds.  He walked to his left, where there weren’t many children.  Had he gone to his right, he would have found rooms full of little kids playing.

A lone bus driver heard the shots, and, without hesitation, whisked children onto the bus and sped away.  My children were on his bus.

The shooter abruptly fled.   Later that day he murdered a U.S. postal carrier because he looked like a foreigner.

People from across the country reached out to help.  Goldberg (the Jewish Wrestler) visited, giving each child a Goldberg doll. 

I didn’t tell my kids what really happened that day.  At the time, they didn’t know that anyone was hurt.  They just knew that a “monster” came and left, and he’s locked up.  They seemed to adjust.  But kids pick up on things.  They began sleeping in each other’s room with the lights on.  And my son slept with his Goldberg doll on top of his bed for many years; always there for protection.

On August 10, 1999, my family was extremely lucky.  It could have been worse.  Much worse.  But, as time passes, I seem to only think about that day whenever there’s another shooting—and there always seems to be another shooting.


Jack Saltzberg is executive director of Friends of Sheba Medical Center.  He can be reached at jack@saltzberg.org.

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