It's the smell of smoke that takes Beth Karns back. Not just gun smoke, but wood smoke — the smell kicked up by the spray of bullets that struck the gym floor when the shooter opened fire. Depending on how she's feeling that day, the trail she walks behind her Pennsylvania home, near a shooting range, is either great desensitization therapy or an emotional minefield.
There are other triggers, which might come unexpectedly and then stay with her for days, lingering like smoke. Like news stories about another mass shooting somewhere in America.
It happened last week in Isla Vista, Calif. Elliot Rodger, the mentally ill son of a Hollywood director, killed three roommates before opening fire and killing three more, injuring 13, and then taking his own life. Five years ago this August, a systems analyst just outside of Pittsburgh named George Sodini opened fire in a fitness club, killing three and wounding nine before taking his own life. Both killers left behind extensive online documents detailing their rage over perceived rejections from women. Both left behind victims and survivors who had no choice but to carry on with their lives after watching others lose theirs.
Karns is one of them. The 44-year-old Verizon Wireless employee hadn't even technically started her second job at the LA Fitness club that Thursday night; her first day was supposed to be Saturday. But after she returned home from a workout there, her future manager called and asked her to come back to help with the cleanup for an inspection the next morning. That's how she found herself standing next to the door of the aerobics classroom, wiping down a piece of gym equipment, when Sodini walked into the crowded room, turned off the lights and opened fire.
It was around 7 p.m. The gym was packed; music was blaring. It was hard to tell what was happening at first. The fact that the lights were out in the aerobics room didn't strike her as odd — instructors turned them off during workouts all the time. Then she saw the flash of gunfire.
Lisa Fleeher was one of the women in the room. She wasn't alarmed when the man in all black walked in shortly after their aerobic dance class began. She figured he was the husband of one of the women. When he started shooting, she was near the middle of the room. She spied the closest exit, but then watched as a woman who tried to escape was shot in the back. Fleeher lay down on the ground, amid other bodies, hoping that the shooter would think she'd already been hit. "That was my best option," she said. "I ended up getting shot anyway."
Karns's first instinct was to count the flashes. In her former career training as a private investigator, she'd learned to count the rounds of gunfire to determine what kind of gun the shooter might be carrying and how many rounds might be left. One ... two ... three."¦ Around her, people screamed and ran for the exits. They left trails of blood. She counted to 13 before someone grabbed her and started moving her toward the entrance.
Her hands trembled as she tried to dial 911 from the front desk. When a gym patron wearing a T-shirt that identified him as a first responder picked up a stool and started heading toward the aerobics room, she went with him, not knowing the plan but knowing that she needed to help.
When the room finally went quiet, Fleeher and others got up and fled. Karns entered and turned on the lights. The first person she saw was the instructor — a pregnant woman named Mary Primis — lying on the ground, wounded. Another woman had lain on top of her to shield her from the bullets. Primis was shot twice, but she was alive. Karns approached one of the victims and tried to stop her bleeding. She remembers the way the victim's skin felt, like wet tissues. She remembers the moment when she realized the woman had stopped breathing. She moved on to another victim, and held her until police burst through the door.
Both Sodini and the Isla Vista shooter acted on their hatred of women; violent misogyny is a thread that connects them to other mass shooters, such as George Hennard, who killed 24 people in Killeen, Texas, in 1991; the Virginia Tech shooter; and the Columbine killers.
But neither Karns nor Fleeher has much interest in the political debate that inevitably follows a shooting. "The whole situation with me doesn't make me hate guns or anything like that," Fleeher, who recovered and had two children, says. "I just think they need to be used for the right thing in the right way by people who are trained to use them." Karns is suspicious about how politicians could help. "I don't know that there's anything that can be done," she says.
The women have more pressing, and personal, concerns. Fleeher spent months in recovery after the shooting. Both spent months in counseling for post-traumatic stress. Karns is haunted by all the times she saw Sodini in the gym. Sometimes she wonders if reaching out to him could have saved lives.
If there's one thing she wished people could understand about what it's like to go through a mass shooting, it's that they can never understand. "It's never over. People don't want to hear about it. Or I have friends who will listen, but there's nothing left to say anymore. If somebody comes up to me at work and they scare me in a joking manner or I jump at a loud noise, they don't understand," she says. "It's not one of the ones that gets listed when they discuss mass shootings; no one mentions the LA Fitness shooting in Pittsburgh. I get it. But are they going to remember or am I going to be the only one? I don't want it to be forgotten. I don't want it to be everything, but I don't want it to be forgotten."
Sometimes, on the toughest days, she opens the notepad app on her smartphone and writes diary entries for herself:
"I see those women and I smell death. Every day. I have gotten used to it. But nothing takes away what he did. Those women died at the wrong place and wrong time. He killed me on purpose."