To borrow a cliche, it was a day like many others…
My co-workers and I had made our usual lunchtime journey over to the CNN Center for a bite to eat and to rail at the talking heads on the giant monitors hanging over the food court. It was a sunny day – warm, but not too hot – and one of the rare occasions where things were running smoothly at the office and life seemed pretty good.
To say we are regulars at the Center would be understatement – we eat there so frequently that, “I’ll have the usual,” is an acceptable order, and our relations with the food court crews have long belonged to the Southern formal,”How’s your mom-and-them?”
As you enter the Center from Marietta Street, there are two flights of stairs going up either side of a dividing wall (bearing the CNN logo, of course) that contains a pair of elevators often used by service staff to transport set dressings, tables, and production equipment from studio to studio. It was a common sight to see a single crewman struggling to manage a too small dolly filled with huge pieces of precariously balanced planking. There were more than a few times where we’d been obliged to help one or more of these poor gents reload a large piece that had come crashing to the floor with a tremendous bang that echoed through the tiled floor atrium.
On this day, we we were about halfway up the first set of stairs when a loud boom echoed around the corner. Thinking a crewman had maybe lost control of a dolly and dropped a large piece of staging, I trundled around the corner to see if anyone needed a hand.
When I got there, however, the corridor was empty and no crewman was to be seen. The only movement came from a young couple that ran down the escalators and, once at the bottom, off to the side to stand in front of a glass wall that divided the corridor from a private area of the CNN studios. Thinking that the noise had maybe come from the top of the escalators, I kept walking towards them. As I reached the center of the corridor, a second group of people came flying past, this time a man and his children. As he shot past, he flung the kids against a wall to my left, then flung his arms across them as if protecting them from something.
It was then that I began to realize that something was very, very wrong.
I turned to look for my companions, and saw them scurrying up the hallway gesturing at me to follow. Puzzled, I turned back to look at the first couple, who were now struggling, each grasping the other’s arms and jerking back and forth as if playing the children’s game of “push me – pull you.” I was about 20 feet away when the man brought up a gun, placed it in the woman’s belly and pulled the trigger on what I only then realized was the second of what would be a total of three shots.
When experiencing an act of violence, the human body institutes a specific set of survival responses. The hypothalamus sends a flood of chemicals, mainly adrenaline, into the bloodstream that triggers a specific set of bodily responses. Respiration increases, blood floods the muscles, pupils dilate, and our immune system kicks into overdrive in anticipation of injury. Mentally, we become hyper-aware. Pain receptors are dulled as an unnecessary distraction, sight is sharpened to a laser-like focus, and the muscles protecting our vital core tighten up to display the classic knot of fear in the belly. The perception of time becomes relativistic. Moments become liquid and events are perceived in uncanny detail so that the brain may better record only the most important details.
While the biological responses are almost always the same, each person’s reaction to those responses may differ wildly from event to event. It’s called the “Fight or Flight” response for a reason. One day a man’s instinct may force his body to turn and run away as fast as his legs can carry him, while another may find him the picture of serenity, calmly moving about, gazing upon horrors with a detached eye and a near supernatural calm. On other days, he may, as I was, simply become glued to the floor, a helpless and silent observer.
As the second shot slammed into her belly, the woman’s hips swung backward and her head dropped down to the level of the man’s waist. He let go of her arm, shifting his hand up to grab a handful of her braided hair. As I watched, he brought the gun up to the side of her head and fired again at point blank range.
She didn’t so much fall to the ground as slump back and sit down. Her torso remained upright for a few seconds, and though her head was down, and her eyes were obscured, I could see her head swinging side to side as if looking for one last avenue of escape.
Thinking back now, I am in awe of the power of this realization: That here, in the last moments, as her life-force was slowly slipping away, her presence of mind was such that she was still trying to find a way to survive.
It wasn’t long, however, probably no more than a second at most, before she slipped backward to lay prone on the floor. At almost precisely the same moment, I heard a voice over my left shoulder bellow:
“FREEZE! PUT THE GUN DOWN!”
I turned to see two of the CNN security guards positioned about 15 feet away at the corner of the wall, guns drawn and aimed in the direction of the shooter. I looked back at him, and suddenly realized that I was now standing between three loaded weapons. I scooted towards the guards, and just as I rounded the nearest corner two shots were fired nearly simultaneously. I spun at the corner and looked back to see the shooter fall to the ground.
As the guards rushed to the shooter’s side to kick away his gun and make sure he was no longer a threat, I saw the woman’s right hand rise from the floor. For just a moment it hung there, fingers trying to extend as if reaching for something.
I never knew Clara Riddles. In all the times that I walked through the corridors of the CNN Center, there must have been some days where we passed each other without nodding, or stood behind one another in a restaurant line without exchanging pleasantries. I know now that she worked in the attached hotel where she earned a paycheck as a maid stocking the mini bars in the hotel rooms. I know now that she had a wonderful voice, and dreamed of a career as a professional singer. I know now that her nickname was “CiCi,” and that she was 22 years old when she was killed.
I never knew her, but I like to fool myself into thinking that in those last fleeting moments of her life, as she reached her hand upward to something only she could see, I witnessed a small piece of her spirit. That within that image of her hand reaching outward for life, I learned a little about who she was.
Rest in peace, Ms. Riddles. I am so very sorry I couldn’t have done more to save you.
[Author’s Note: The events described above took place on April 3, 2007. CNN’s coverage of the event is here. CNN’s coverage of her funeral can be found here. Her shooter was sentenced to life in prison. More information on the life of Clara Riddles and other victims of domestic abuse can be found here.]