Three years have passed since John Souter stumbled out of his office with bullet holes in his chest.
But all it takes is a sound, a scent, or the stress of being in a crowded room for the worst moments of the worst day of his life to come rushing back: He’s wrestling with the gunman at Accent Signage, his hand wrapped around the gun barrel until a shot nicks his finger and his grip slips. He’s on the floor, dazed and bleeding, hearing the gunshots and the eerie silence that follows.
“I go through that scene in my mind four or five times a day, at least,” said Souter, now 66 and still recovering from the bullets that damaged his right lung and turned him from an avid runner into someone who struggles for air if he tries to run half a block.
From Sandy Hook to San Bernardino, hundreds of Americans have fallen victim to mass shootings since the attack on Minneapolis’s Accent Signage Systems on Sept. 27, 2012, fueling an ongoing and intense debate over gun violence.
In the aftermath of those shootings, much of the focus is on those who died — seven lives ended at Accent that day, including that of the shooter, who was in Souter’s office because he was about to be fired. But for the survivors, the grief and horror of what they saw and heard last long after the eulogies end, the flowers wilt and the news cycle moves on.
“I would like to get in front of Congress and tell them what this is like, and challenge them,” Souter said. “Because people need to stand up for other people. Survivors must stand up for survivors.”
‘He’s got a gun!’
Souter credits his survival to the Minneapolis police and the unarmed firefighters who rushed into peril that day. Without their courage and their training, he said, “I would not be here. They most likely saved my life, getting me to hospital so quickly.”
Mingled with gratitude is regret, as he replays the scene in his mind and wonders what-if.
“Why couldn’t I have stopped him?” said Souter, who mixes memories with rigorous research, wry humor and a few tears. “If I could have hit him, one strike, it would have made all the difference.”
He wasn’t even supposed to be in the office that afternoon. A native of the United Kingdom, Souter had just returned from Europe and was still adjusting to the time change by coming in at the crack of dawn and heading home midafternoon. And he wasn’t supposed to be the one breaking the news to Andrew Engeldinger that he was about to lose his job, either. But the co-worker who normally handled the hiring and firing had asked for the day off.
In the crime scene photos, “you’ll see an envelope [on the desk] with ‘Andy’ written on it. That’s my writing,” Souter said in a recent interview. The packet contained information about unemployment benefits and health coverage for Engeldinger, who had been warned repeatedly about poor job performance and tardiness.
“I went to open the door with my left hand,” Souter said, reaching out a hand toward a door only he could see. “For some reason, I looked over my shoulder. To this day, I don’t know why. I saw him lift his shirt and pull out the gun. I shouted to Rami [Cooks, the Accent manager who was also in the meeting] ‘He’s got a gun!’ and I grabbed it.”
The two men lunged at Engeldinger, trying to stop him. But Engeldinger “jammed” Souter against the door frame.
“If I’d hit him two or three times, it would have been enough, but I couldn’t,” Souter said. “I forced the gun up in the air. Two shots went off. The third one shot me in the finger, which made me lose my grip on the gun. Then he shot me twice in the ribs.”
Souter stumbled out of his office, shouting out a warning to the others in the building as he fell to the floor. A research scientist who spent 20 years working on color science at 3M before starting at Accent, Souter experienced near-death as a color — a nauseating wash of red-brown that clouded his vision.
“I was sure … this was death,” he said, noting that he could still hear gunshots throughout the building. “I used to laugh when people said they saw their life flash in front of them. My life didn’t flash in front, [but] there was this desire: somehow, I must go see my family.”
Years before, he’d promised Ellen, his longtime partner, that he would always call if he was going to be late getting home from work, so she’d never have to worry or wonder. Back home in Wayzata, Ellen glanced at the clock. He was late.
Souter pushed himself up against the wall, trying to stanch the blood. The building had fallen deathly silent.
“Then, I hear, ‘This is the Minneapolis police department,’” he said. “They ask me to come out with my hands up and I told them — apparently in somewhat pointed terms — that I’d been shot, you know, and I can’t move. They repeated it again — actually, it’s part of the training, I found out after, they must repeat it twice — and I said the same thing again, apparently even more colorfully, according to one police officer, which I can kind of laugh about now.”
Within 20 minutes of the first gunshot, Souter was on a gurney in Hennepin County Medical Center, getting the first of three transfusions, on his way to the first of three operations.
A disturbing pattern
Mass shootings happen like grim clockwork in America. Stanford University’s mass shooting database dates to 1966, when a gunman climbed the clock tower at the University of Texas at Austin and began firing, killing 16 people and wounding 32 others.
Stanford’s database defines a mass shooting as an attack that kills or injures at least three people, excluding the shooter. It also excludes shootings tied to gang and drug crimes.
Other sources define it differently, but by Stanford’s count, there have been 246 mass shootings over the past five decades. The latest played out Dec. 6 in Omaha, where a mother and her 2-year-old daughter were killed and three others were injured.
The nonfatal shooting of five Black Lives Matter activists Nov. 23 in downtown Minneapolis was the 243rd entry in Stanford’s database. Accent Signage was number 134.
Accent reopened about a week after the killings to meet deadlines on promised orders. The company, a family-owned business that makes interior signage for businesses around the globe, called in trauma specialist Jonathan Bundt to help its staff navigate a world and workplace where nothing seemed safe or normal anymore.
“Our statistics are clear. We’re having a mass shooting once a week in America,” said Bundt, who works to instill “hope and balance” in survivors, while acknowledging that the trauma isn’t something you just get over.
“It’s really disrespectful when somebody says ‘I don’t know how I’m going to get through this,’ and [you] pat them on the shoulder and say, ‘Don’t worry, it will be fine. God’s will. It could have been worse.’ Those are the worst things to say. … You meet people where they’re at, not where you think they should be.”
For survivors struggling to recover, there is help. Survivor Resources runs a network of grief and loss support groups and its staff reached out to the Accent survivors and families in the aftermath.
The Minnesota Crime Victims Reparation Board steered more than $85,600 in compensation funds to a dozen Accent survivors or to victims’ families — funds that offset the cost of everything from funerals and lost wages to medical bills and mental health counseling.
‘You live with it’
The mass shooting at Accent stole the lives of Reuven Rahamim, Rami Cooks, Ronald Edberg, Jacob Beneke, Eric Rivers and Keith Basinski and changed the lives of everyone in the building that day, and everyone who loved them.
As Souter was rushed to HCMC that afternoon, Ellen got a call from the hospital, urging her to come downtown, without telling her why. She arrived to find it crowded with the frightened faces of other Accent families.
“You live with it the rest of your life. The subject of death is always with you,” she said. “But it makes you stronger. … You appreciate your life better. You understand how fragile it is.”
In some ways, the experience has strengthened Souter.
“Things don’t scare me. I have absolutely no fear,” he said. But what he does have is a heightened sense of anxiety that keeps him on edge, ready to react, unable to relax. He’s been diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress.
“I’m still impacted by loud noises. I don’t like crowds. I don’t like being in crowded places. I don’t like driving on the interstate in traffic,” he said.
He copes with help from counseling, anti-anxiety medications, and long daily walks. He has his family and a wide network of friends, which includes Ellen’s synagogue, Temple Israel, where the rabbis and cantor have all but adopted him.
He’s retired now. The injury cut short the final years of his career. But he consults with the police, advising them as they plan how they will react to the next active shooter situation. Around his neck, he wears a St. Michael medallion — patron saint of police officers — that they gave him.
Driven by the months he spent fighting through paperwork and insurance companies and six-figure hospital bills, he’s become an advocate for the rights of victims of gun violence.
He’s reached out to other wounded survivors from places like Aurora, Colo., and Virginia Tech University, and heard horror stories of bankruptcy and broken marriages and lingering post-traumatic stress.
He’s met with President Obama and has lobbied Congress to ensure that more of the $12 billion-plus federal Crime Victims Fund — collected from federal court fines, penalties and forfeitures — actually reaches victims of crime.
And he’s backing legislation offered by U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., that would block Congress from dipping into the multibillion-dollar fund.
Mass shootings have become so common, the aftermath “almost becomes theater — macabre theater,” Souter said. “It happens so often, you know who’s going to speak, what they’re going to say at the news conferences …
“We know how to react to gun violence. We have yet to learn how to respond to the aftermath.”