By Aya Elamroussi, CNN
Updated: Thu, 19 May 2022 12:07:10 GMT
When Jerome Bridges heard gunshots ring out Saturday in a Buffalo, New York, supermarket, he ran to lead some of his coworkers and customers to safety in the store's break room and barricaded them inside with a heavy desk.
"That's all you heard was firing, constant firing -- firing and firing and firing," said Bridges, who is a scan coordinator at Tops Friendly Markets.
"People were scattering around the place, they was screaming, crying, yelling, talking about, 'There's a shooter in the store.'"
After retreating with people to the break room, Bridges tried to keep them quiet because the shots were getting closer to food displays that were near them, he told CNN.
"I just wanted to make sure I kept the customers and my other three coworkers very safe. So, even if I would have died, it would have been, you know, me dying protecting them," he said.
The suspected shooter, Payton S. Gendron, 18, allegedly killed 10 people and wounded three others in a racist mass shooting that took aim at a predominately Black neighborhood. Gendron, who is White, has pleaded not guilty to a charge of first-degree murder, officials said, adding that other charges are forthcoming.
He is slated to appear in court Thursday for a felony hearing, during which a judge will determine if there's sufficient evidence to continue jailing him on that charge. The judge is expected to hear from the defense and prosecutors, who may present new evidence.
Authorities are investigating the shooting as a hate crime and an act of racially motivated violent extremism. Of the 13 victims shot, 11 were Black.
Online posts created by Gendron on the chat app Discord showed the suspected shooter had targeted that neighborhood because of its majority Black population. The store's ZIP code, 14208, is 78% Black, according to the Census Bureau's 2020 American Community Survey.
Taking cover in a milk cooler
A Black family of three were separated for about 20 minutes during the mass shooting, and they later described how harrowing it was not knowing if everyone was safe as gunshots rang out.
Lamont Thomas and his 8-year-old daughter Londin were looking for cake mix for mother Julie Harwell's birthday when they heard the first shots. Harwell was on another side of the store as the shooting unfolded.
Thomas and his daughter followed an employee to the milk cooler section of the store and hid there as they waited for the gunshots to stop, Thomas told CNN's Don Lemon on Wednesday night.
"And then as the gunman was still shooting, he attempted to actually shoot through the coolers, but the bullets never penetrated," Thomas said. "We could see the milk he shot through ... leaking out," adding he was relieved when the bullets didn't reach them.
Thomas shielded his daughter's body with his, he said, and put his hand over her mouth to keep her quiet. Londin said she wasn't scared for herself and was thinking about her mother as her father tried to calm her down.
Across the supermarket, Harwell "couldn't even process or think twice about what my next move would be," she said.
"It was like the ... scariest moment of my life because I never thought something like that would ever happen in Buffalo or anywhere else. I know it happens, but we just thought never in our city," she said.
At one point, Harwell was a few feet away from the shooter. "That's when it got real to me because I didn't know what was going on still until I saw him (the shooter). It was surreal," she said.
"It bothers me to even get a little bit close to where it happened because it brings back so many memories, and none of them I want to remember, or the mental state of paranoia or just having anxiety now, and it is just hard to be there," Harwell said.
Governor, others take steps following shooting
The suspect's social media posts have become central to the investigation because they offer details about how he planned his attack and his motives.
In posts first shared on Discord, then more widely on the hate-filled online forum 4Chan, Gendron said he visited the grocery store multiple times on March 8 to learn its layout. He noted how many Black and White people shopped during his visits and drew a map of the store's interior, according to his posts.
Officials are also reviewing a 180-page racist document they say was written by Gendron and posted online shortly before the shooting. In it, the suspect confesses to the attack and described himself as a fascist, a White supremacist and an anti-Semite.
In June, Gendron showed a warning sign of violence when he made a school project about murder-suicides when he was a student at Susquehanna Valley Central High School in Conklin, New York, officials said.
Police were called to the school, and he was taken for a mental health evaluation and later released. At the time, police didn't seek a "red flag" order of protection against Gendron.
The Red Flag Law, also known as the extreme risk protection order law, is designed to prevent anyone who shows signs of being a threat to themselves or others from purchasing a firearm, New York's website states.
But because the evaluation was not an involuntary commitment, it did not prevent the suspected shooter from purchasing or possessing a gun under federal law, said New York State Police spokesperson Beau Duffy.
Since the shooting, Gov. Kathy Hochul has proposed a gun laws package, as well as other changes to law enforcement protocol when a person shows they may be harmful to themselves or others.
On Wednesday, Hochul said she would sign an executive order requiring state police to file an "extreme risk order of protection" under the red flag law when they believe that an individual is a threat to himself, herself or others.
The gun laws package would aim to close loopholes around specific types of guns that fall outside current regulations, including high-powered, concealable guns and those that can be modified to hold high-capacity magazines, she said.
The proposed legislation would remedy "just one of those enormous loopholes that you can drive a truck through," she said.