AURORA – Exhausted emotionally and physically, Anita Lewis and other employees returned to the Henry Pratt building in Aurora on Monday, but not to work. The parent company, Mueller Water Products, brought in grief counselors who will be on-site this week to help employees cope with what they endured.
“None of us really have any idea what to do,” Lewis said. “As we talked [Monday], there was a lot of pain and some confusion and fear. Lots of sleeplessness, too. But pain was the overall feeling.”
When the call came in Feb. 15 to lock down the Pratt office building on Highland Avenue, no one inside knew what was going on at the warehouse across the street, said Lewis, a materials supervisor at the facility who has been a Pratt employee for more than 41 years.
Employees began to gather in the cafeteria, at windows looking out onto the building where a disgruntled co-worker had begun shooting. By the time the ordeal was over, six of their co-workers would be dead, including the gunman. Clayton Parks of Elgin, Trevor Wehner of Sheridan, Russell Beyer of Yorkville, Vicente Juarez of Oswego and Josh Pinkard of Oswego all died Feb. 15 of gunshot wounds.
“We heard the sirens and started to see all the emergency vehicles speeding in, but we had no communication with the other building,” Lewis said. “That was the most difficult part – not knowing.”
Soon, family members of employees began calling and sharing what they’d seen on TV, worried for the safety of loved ones at the company.
“Then we started getting cellphone communication from the other building, and they said Gary [Martin] was shooting.”
For more than an hour and a half, staff members watched through the window as police and SWAT teams surrounded the building. After police entered, more shots rang out. They watched without answers. They watched without any sense of control.
Martin, a 15-year employee who had been fired from his job at Pratt that afternoon, was killed by police after he took the lives of his fellow employees and shot five officers.
Employees in the Highland Avenue building were told the threat was over. But the facility remained locked down, and no other information was provided.
Lewis, also a Kane County Board member, called Rob Russell, the county coroner, to see if he had answers. When Russell told her that five people were dead, she held the burden of that information to herself. A grief facilitator and a chaplain, Lewis knew the fear and anguish that information would create among the staff.
“This is not something you expect at your place of work,” she said.
Lewis joined Russell as the bodies of the victims were identified and family members were notified. She’d join him again Feb. 16 to comfort those who couldn’t yet see the bodies of their lost loved ones, calling people, calming them down.
After the events came the shock, followed by the questions, interviews by police and replaying of the event to friends and family. Lewis attended a news conference Feb. 16 at the Aurora Police Department, and many employees participated in the weekend’s vigils.
“An outpouring of support from the greater community has really helped,” Lewis said. “Aurora Strong? It definitely was.”
While the slayings drew national media attention, Lewis said she wants those who live in the area to come together to develop a better understanding of what happened and how to keep it from happening again.
“I have no idea why Gary did this, but something triggered it,” Lewis said. “What I keep hearing is that we need to really be aware of each other, take care of each other and support each other.
“We have to be more willing to tell each other what we are feeling. It’s not just a Pratt tragedy; it’s a national tragedy.”