The top news story early on Jan. 7, 2010, was the winter weather. Three inches of snow had fallen overnight, and it was still snowing. Temperatures were in the teens with gusty winds.
But before the sun rose, everything changed. Timothy G. Hendron, 51, an employee of transformer manufacturer ABB, walked into the factory complex in north St. Louis and opened fire. He would kill three people and wound five before turning the gun on himself, in St. Louis’ first mass workplace shooting.
The first call for shots fired at 4350 Semple Ave. in the Mark Twain/Interstate 70 Industrial neighborhood came into dispatch around 6:30 a.m. Shortly after, the pagers worn by the department’s leaders started going off.
“This one had a different tempo to it,” said former St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson, now the assistant police chief with Amtrak. "Normally it’s an incident occurred, officers respond, things are stabilized. This one, something occurred, officers responded, and then more officers, and it wasn’t stable, and it was very dynamic.”
‘Just senseless violence’
As word of the shooting spread, the agony grew for those who knew people working at the factory.
Adrienne Wilson’s younger brother Cory, her father, Don, and her stepmother, Vickie, all worked at ABB. Adrienne is still haunted by the call she got from her father telling her there was a shooter in the building.
“And he could not get ahold of my brother, and if I would try and call my brother and see if he would answer. And so I did, and obviously he didn’t answer,” she said.
Cory Wilson was one of the three people killed. Don Wilson made the identification. Adrienne Wilson had a task just as hard.
“I had to call my mother, who lived in Colorado, and let her know that my brother, her son, was shot and killed,” she said.
Though Cory Wilson, then 27, had only been at ABB for five years, he was already a supervisor, which didn’t surprise his sister.
“He worked hard at everything he did, whether it was his job, or playing collegiate football,” she said. “He just worked really hard and wanted to succeed.”
Police believe that Hendron may have targeted Cory Wilson, who was his supervisor. A second victim, 55-year-old Terry Joe Mabry, was shot at point-blank range on the parking lot. Police found the third person killed, Carlton Carter, 57, shot in his car.
All told, Hendron fired more than 115 rounds from at least three weapons, including a high-powered rifle.
Adrienne Wilson still finds herself asking why.
“Why would you want to take the lives of three innocent people? Just senseless violence. I just don’t get it,” she said.
Investigators were never able to determine an exact motive for the shooting. Hendron was part of a federal lawsuit over the way ABB was handling its pension funds. The case had been set to go to trial a few days after the shooting, and Hendron’s wife told investigators he was worried that he would not do well on the stand. She also told police that Hendron had been demoted when the company canceled a production shift and had not been able to get that job back when the shift resumed.
As tragic as the outcome was, the toll could have been much higher, said Dan Isom, who was police chief when Hendron went on his rampage. First, the snowy weather meant people were late to work, reducing the number of potential victims.
“The other thing is that the lieutenant on scene made the decision to breach the door,” Isom said. “If they had not gone in, he could have systematically gone through that building and killed a lot more people and injured a lot more people.”
Hendron had nearly 150 rounds of ammunition on him when police found his body in an office in the complex. Though he shot himself within 15 minutes, it took SWAT teams from St. Louis, St. Louis County and federal agencies more than three hours to determine the more-than-750,000-square-foot complex was safe.
Preparation for a mass shooting
Both then and now, Isom heaped praise on the 300 officers who responded throughout the day. But he acknowledged the department wasn’t fully prepared for a mass shooting.
The Columbine High School shooting in 1999 had taught departments that the first officers on the scene of an active shooter need to enter the building to try to stop the shooter. But just half of St. Louis’ force had received the necessary training, Isom said. The department’s patrol cars also did not have rifles, entry tools or shields.
Though the city was just emerging from the financial chaos generated by the recession, a lack of funding was not the reason for the delay in getting equipment or training.
“It may have been more of not really thinking through all the things that would be needed for line officers to really do or accomplish what we were asking trained SWAT and equipped SWAT officers to do previously,” Isom said. “I just think it was a mistake in operations and judgment on leadership.”
Dotson, who followed Isom as chief, found a department much better prepared to react when he took over in late 2012. By that time, all officers had undergone active shooting training, and the department had purchased the needed equipment.
The city’s hospitals, on the other hand, were already well prepared for a mass-casualty event, said Helen Sandkuhl, a longtime emergency department nurse at St. Louis University Hospital.
“The big thing was 9/11,” she said. "That’s where we started getting all this federal money."
The region has a robust health care coalition of hospitals and emergency medical service providers that meets monthly to figure out the best way to balance the workload if something major happens, Sandkuhl said.
“We have trailers throughout the area where we have medical supplies if we need for a disaster. And we share and borrow from each other,” she added.
Sandkuhl, who was at work on Jan. 7, 2010, heard about the shooting from EMS crews bringing other patients to the emergency room.
“We alerted the blood bank,” she said. “We called our surgeons, we notified our trauma coordinator as well as our chief of trauma surgery — that gives you a little time to free up things or get on campus. We started freeing up beds, asking for extra stretchers or extra wheelchairs. They pretty much have it down pat.”
Barnes-Jewish Hospital, the closest trauma center to ABB, was able to handle all of the victims, Sandkuhl said, but the shooting at ABB prompted SLU to take another look at its own workplace safety policies.
Informing the public
At the time of the ABB shooting, the St. Louis police public information office had a well-established hotline where outlets could get recorded information on day-to-day violence like homicides. But on Jan. 7, the department quickly realized that the hotline wasn’t going to be enough.
It set up a media staging ground at North Patrol, less than a mile from the scene. But updates weren’t all that frequent.
It wasn’t that the department didn’t want to tell people what was going on, Dotson said. He was a captain at the time in charge of coordinating the release of information.
“It changes not minute by minute, but second by second,” Dotson said “People think well, you get there and you know everything. You get there and you don’t know anything more than you did before you got there except where you are.”
Adding to the chaos of the day was the fact that a mass shooting was big news. Fox, MSNBC, CNN and other national outlets were also calling for information. So, as it turned out, was the Chinese government.
Katie O’Sullivan, just 25 at the time, was the only person in the office when the shooting happened.
“The Chinese consulate was calling wanting to know who the victims were,” said O’Sullivan, who is now the communications director at Nerinx Hall High School. “And just the way we couldn’t tell the media who the victims are, even when we did finally know, but having to tell someone’s family, ‘No, sorry, I can’t help you right now.’”
While St. Louis has avoided another ABB-like tragedy, nearly 2,000 people have been killed or injured in mass shootings over the past decade.
When former police spokeswoman Erica Van Ross told a co-worker at Schnucks, where she is currently the vice president of communications, that she was taking time to do an interview about the ABB shooting, his reaction was, “Well, is that a mass shooting?"
“We have turned into a society where for there now to be ‘outrage,’ there has to be 10 people dead, there has to be children for it to count,” she said. “That’s kind of where we are today, and that’s pretty sad and telling.”
O’Sullivan added: “Just looking up all the ones that you start to forget about with massive body counts. It’s just horrible.”
Every mass shooting opens up the wound for Adrienne Wilson and her family. To cope, they started the Cory Wilson Scholarship Association.
“It has allowed us to carry on his memory,” she said. “If we can show a little kindness to some of those kids, maybe they will, too, and maybe eventually some kindness will start overshadowing all this gun violence that just happens.”
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