Survivors, victims' families and law enforcement tell of the deadly mass shooting at Excel Industries in Hesston, Kansas on Feb. 25, 2016. Video by John Albert/The Wichita Eagle jalbert@wichitaeagle.com
Survivors, victims' families and law enforcement tell of the deadly mass shooting at Excel Industries in Hesston, Kansas on Feb. 25, 2016. Video by John Albert/The Wichita Eagle jalbert@wichitaeagle.com

Local

At Excel, going back to work after shooting difficult but can bring resolution

March 27, 2016 05:59 PM

UPDATED March 28, 2016 12:22 PM

It was Alicia Sloan’s first day back at work at Excel Industries, two weeks to the day after she ran out the door to escape gunfire.

As the 24-year-old stepped back into the Hesston mower manufacturing plant, she smelled bleach.

Sloan is telling her experience of what it is like to return to a workplace where a mass shooting occurred, she said, “Because it makes me feel better to talk about it.”

Experts on the impact of trauma say that talking it through is just one way for people to cope.

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Sloan said she returned to work not just because it was her livelihood. She needed to confront her fear and resolve it.

The odor of bleach told her that the spot near the door was where a co-worker had been shot.

For Sloan, facing her fear would mean confronting a certain hallway in the sprawling plant – because the first gunfire she heard came from that spot.

But first, the smell of bleach made her think of Brian Sadowsky, 44. Sadowsky was one of three employees killed when Cedric Ford shot his way through the plant with an AK-47 assault rifle. Fourteen others were wounded. She remembered how Sadowsky would go out to his car on smoke break and turn up the rock music. The story she heard after the shooting was that Sadowsky had died trying to help someone else as the shots sent people running for the doors.

That afternoon, Feb. 25, Sloan had been training at a computer to be a lead worker whose job is to make sure that the paint line has all the parts it needs, to determine whether any workers are needed to fill in and to track mower parts. She moves up and down the line and has to interact with everyone.

On the day of the shooting, sitting at the computer, she first heard the danger when she registered gunshots echoing from a hallway known by workers as “the tunnel.”

“It sounded like a machine gun almost,” she recalled Friday.

Toward ‘the tunnel’

That first day back to a place that is normally very loud because it is a manufacturing plant, where people wear ear plugs, it was “very quiet,” Sloan said. People were talking “but not like a normal workday.” Not the regular joking and high fives. “There was none of that.”

“It didn’t really hit me at first” – the shooting just 14 days earlier.

The company made clear to workers that they had counselors right there to talk to.

Sloan began walking toward the hallway she had been dreading.

The closer I got to that tunnel, the more anxious I got. I started to feel hot and shaky.

Alicia Sloan, Excel worker

“The closer I got to that tunnel, the more anxious I got,” she recalled. “I started to feel hot and shaky.”

A company official had told employees that if they see someone who needs help, lead them to a counselor. A plant manager directed Sloan to one. So she talked to the counselor and stayed at work “to get back in the groove.” The message she heard from the company was try to stay at work, try to heal at work and we will help you.

For Sloan, the hallway from which she heard the gunfire is still “kind of like a hard place to go.” One day, she had to do some paint work in the hallway. “It was awkward,” Sloan said.

How she escaped

The afternoon of the shooting, after she heard the shots and saw another person running, Sloan sprinted toward a door. Others were standing there, hesitating and blocking her escape. She and another person running toward the door screamed that someone was shooting, warning the others to get out.

Sloan didn’t look back as she ran.

Only when she got outside and far enough away that she felt she could turn around did she see the shooter. It was Cedric Ford. A guy who had joked with her at work. He would say to Sloan, who has long, dark brown hair, “What’s up? Long hair, don’t care.” Ford had worked at a paint booth just around the corner from her.

That day, Ford went on an attack through the plant and out the other side before the Hesston police chief shot and killed him. At one point, when Ford came outside, he looked in Sloan’s direction and fired. She took cover in a ditch.

The distance she had run to escape seemed so short that day. Later, she realized she had fled much farther than she had thought.

Those first two days back at work were the most difficult, Sloan said. “A lot of negativity ran through my head. … But we all went through it together.

“That next week, it was totally normal.”

PTSD symptoms normal

It’s normal for people who have witnessed something like a workplace shooting to experience in the short term symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. That would include nightmares and the desire to avoid things that remind them of the shooting, said Paula Schnurr, a psychologist and executive director of the National Center for PTSD in the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In most cases, Schnurr said, the symptoms are resolved and the person doesn’t go on to be diagnosed with the disorder.

Going back to work for the first time to the place where you’ve seen a co-worker killed or wounded can be a trigger, even though the place has become what a psychologist calls “objectively safe.”

But there is a flip side: Staying long enough in the place where the bad thing happened can help the person overcome the distress. It can be therapeutic. “So being able come to work repeatedly could be helpful” in dealing with the feelings set off by the violence, she said.

Some employees might be so distressed they feel they can’t return to work, she said. But she encourages them to reach out for help that can come from family, friends, co-workers and clergy.

Some advice

“I think Excel (along with its employee assistance contractor) has done an awesome job” in helping employees in their return and readjustment, said Mary Carman, a psychologist and vice president of operations and older adult services for Prairie View, a behavioral health center that is the community mental health center for Harvey, Marion and McPherson counties.

The anxiety of coming back to a place where a trauma has occurred can be balanced by a feeling of relief, Carman said. For people who have been away from their workplace, she said, there can be a recognition that, “Hey, these people are my family” and that resuming the job is part of “getting back to some normalcy.”

Workers will handle it differently, she said. Some will want to be left alone; others will need to have others around them.

Sometimes a new trauma can bring back old traumas, “old feelings,” Carman said. And for people who are already stressed with a divorce or a dying parent, the new trauma can be overwhelming.

Her advice for dealing with the stress includes talking to people, having structure, gardening, going for a walk, trying to maintain normal sleeping patterns and eating patterns. And one other thing: “Try to get back in touch with nature.”

A therapeutic hike

Joe Swain, a 36-year-old Excel worker, went hiking in Colorado after attending the funerals of two of his slain co-workers.

“I wanted to go clear my head,” Swain said.

He hiked to a flat spot on the east side of Loveland Pass, above the treeline, alone, among the rocks and boulders and buffeted by wind. The shooting still occupied his mind.

In a normal voice on the side of the pass, he asked two questions aloud: “Why?” “Why did it happen?”

Later, Swain reflected, “Sometimes when you’ve got a question, sometimes it doesn’t hurt to hear yourself ask the question. It’s just a different form of therapy.

Well, we don’t know (why it happened), and we’ll never know.

Joe Swain, Excel employee

“Well, we don’t know (why it happened), and we’ll never know.

“Before too long, I was feeling a lot better.”

At the plant, Swain’s job is basically to make sure that materials get from one point to another.

He didn’t see the shooter that day. “But I definitely heard the shots. There’s a memory.” He had been less than 50 yards from the shooter.

On that first day back at the plant, he said, “I walked the path” the shooter took.

“I had to do that because I can’t shy away from it. Have to walk down that hallway.”

The Thursday before last, he noticed the clock at 5:02 – the time when the shots rang out.

Weeks after the shooting, he still feels some heightened awareness. A banging noise makes him look around.

Still, there is some comfort. Because of the shooting, the employees are “forever linked,” Swain said.

“I’m not noticing as much bickering over small, stupid” stuff. “Those of us that are still here, we’re extremely thankful. That day, I think, a lot of people were closer to death than they realized.

At this point, we move on. Everybody’s going to heal differently.

Joe Swain, Excel employee

“At this point, we move on. Everybody’s going to heal differently.”

Some inspiration

Mass shootings in workplaces are statistically rare. But Sloan can’t help asking herself sometimes: “What if it happens all over again?”

When the thought streams through, she tells herself to “take a deep breath and make my mind think of something else.”

She had seen one of her co-workers, a lead welder, get shot. For a while, she thought he had died.

He survived and came back to the plant for a visit. “He’s been pretty inspirational for everybody,” Sloan said. “The mood lightened quite a bit when they said (he) is here.”

She went up to him, standing there with a cane, and hugged him.

“I said, ‘What are you doing here?’ And he said he wanted to show his support and thank everybody for coming back to work.”

She’s memorialized what she and her co-workers have gone through with a tattoo on her forearm in black ink: “EXCEL” in big block letters. “Strong” in a flowing script. And the date it happened, “2/25/16.”

VIDEO: "We are here to lament and grieve."

About 1,200 people attended a community church service on February 28, 2014 at Hesston High School. The service, called “The Harvey County Community Service of Lament and Hope,” comes after four people, including a gunman, were killed Thursday in Hesston. (video by Jaime Green)

jgreen@wichitaeagle.com