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Chuck Cordero slid onto his regular red stool in the Waffle House, surveying the restaurant where he had spent so many overnight shifts drinking coffee and making friends.
Inside the Antioch restaurant, a place where eggs sizzle on the grill and dishes clink behind the counter, everything seemed normal.
Shattered glass had been replaced, the yellow crime-scene tape removed, and all traces of the previous month’s tragedy wiped and swept away by a cleaning crew.
But when an unfamiliar man nervously walked through the door, Cordero grew uneasy.
He wasn’t the only one on edge.
The waitresses watched the man with suspicion as he walked past the front counter toward a spot in the corner.
“Do you need something?” one server asked.
The man ordered a cup of coffee, then just sat, slowly sipping.
When the stranger got up to leave, he walked past the jukebox and cash registers to the place where Cordero sat. He stopped and leaned in close.
“I was here that night,” he said into Cordero’s ear.
Then he turned and disappeared out the door.
The shock of the stranger’s words nearly forced Cordero to the floor.The lone surviving bystander
Cordero was one of the lucky ones, people told him.
The night of the mass shooting, an angel must have been watching over him.
But Cordero doesn’t believe it.
If there had been angels that night they would have been looking out for all of them.
"Bullets would have been bouncing off people," he says. "They wouldn’t have been killed."
Eight months have passed since April 22 when a gunman — naked except for a green bomber jacket and an AR-15 — entered the Waffle House on Murfreesboro Pike, unleashed a deadly spray of bullets and disappeared into the night.
In 42 seconds, four young people lost their lives and an entire city descended into panic during a 34-hour manhunt.
Cordero was there. The 50-year-old roadside assistance worker with buzzed black hair and a full goatee sat in his car listening to heavy metal music and waiting for a table inside.
Of the three bystanders in the parking lot at 3:23 a.m., Cordero was the only one to survive.
Bullets blew apart pieces of the wall, and injured bodies slumped in booths and fell to the white-tiled floor. The terror reverberated widely through the community — marking Nashville as the site of yet another mass shooting.
The shooting suspect, a lanky 29-year-old with acne-marked cheeks and copper-colored hair, had raised many red flags. He had multiple prior run-ins with authorities. His firearms had been seized and his sanity questioned.
More mass shootings have gripped the country since then. Ten fatally shot at Santa Fe High School. Five people gunned down in a Maryland newsroom. Eleven dead in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Thirteen killed at a Southern California country dance club, including the shooter.
Each attack eclipses the one before it, diverting the nation's attention to new victims and different motives.
But even as the country moves on, survivors remain anxious and scarred, knowing that tragedy can happen anywhere — even in a neighborhood diner. The 4 friends
The Waffle House was full that Sunday morning.
A florescent beacon on a busy suburban road, the diner sat on a small corner plot next to a self-storage lot and U-Haul dealer, across from a Goodwill and a Publix.
It had been open only six months.
Still, the restaurant had quickly become a pit stop for regulars who knew the late-shift staff by name and young, hungry night owls from the surrounding neighborhoods.
BJ McMurry and his best friend, James Shaw Jr., had been at a fraternity mixer, and they almost always grabbed a bite to eat together after nights out like that.
They stopped at a Waffle House closer to the party, but when they walked in the restaurant it didn’t feel right. People were arguing inside.
"It was too crowded," McMurry said, "and we went to the other one to try to be safe."
They grabbed a spot at the counter. Shaw sat on the first stool, McMurry on the third. McMurry placed his keys on the counter and watched the cook stack dishes as they waited for menus and glasses of water.
In a booth nearby, the one closest to the bathroom, Vincente Tre-Vonne Sneed split a waffle with his friend, Michael Garth Sr. The two hadn’t seen each other since Sneed was released from a 52-month prison stint for drug charges.
Now on parole, Sneed, a man with a lean build and high-arched eyebrows, was putting his life back together, working in Antioch and spending time with his two young boys.
Garth, a muscular and dreadlocked former Army man who was once deployed to Kuwait, was the type of guy who prayed before every meal and each night before bed.
He ordered a Texas cheesesteak with extra meat. Sneed a bowl of steak over hash browns.Outside the restaurant the terror begins
From the parking lot, the fluorescent lights illuminated the crowd of about 20 customers, waitresses and line cooks inside. It was just after 3 a.m.
Cordero sat in his vehicle. "Too busy to go in," he thought.
About four minutes passed. Then Taurean Sanderlin — the cook everyone called “T” — walked outside to take a cigarette break. He wore a blue checkered polo shirt, a black apron and a visor. He waved. Cordero turned his engine off and got out to say hello.
He shut his car door and put his key in the lock — but he never got a chance to turn it.
Across the parking lot, police say, Travis Reinking exited a gold Chevy Silverado pickup at the same time.
He carried an AR-15 rifle, aimed directly at the Waffle House.
As gunshots rang out, Cordero froze, the keys still dangling from the car door.
Outside the restaurant’s front entrance, Joe Perez Jr. was about to head inside.
The 20-year-old San Antonio Spurs fan with an affinity for rap and fashion often wore Ralph Lauren and kept every pair of shoes in its original box. That night, wearing a pair of black and orange athletic shoes, he pulled up to the Waffle House with car trouble.
As he tried to phone his brother for help with his car, four bullets struck him — in the head, in the neck, in the right shoulder and in the back. He collapsed, fatally wounded.
The shots continued.
The cook didn’t even get a chance to take a second puff of his cigarette before a spray of bullets riddled his body from his head to his left thigh. One fractured his skull, another lacerated his lungs. There were seven gunshot wounds in all.
He ran a few feet down the sidewalk and fell face down, mortally wounded.
Cordero ducked down in the darkness.
He couldn’t run. The laces of his work boots were undone, something he always did to help relieve the swelling in his once-broken right ankle.
Instead, using his car as a shield, he scurried across the ground, scraping his wrists deep enough to leave scars. He peered around the rear fender.
He saw the shooter’s backside. He saw the gun aimed at the Waffle House.
Inside the restaurant, as window panes shattered, the chaos and panic had just begun.'I saw my opportunity, my window. So I took it'
It’s impossible to say who reacted first inside the Waffle House, but as glass shards splintered the air, breakfasts were instantly abandoned.
"We both had a fork in mid-flight when we heard the first bullet," Sneed said. When they realized gunfire was rocketing into the restaurant, he and Garth dropped to the cramped space underneath the booth and crawled toward the bathrooms.
A shot whizzed by Sneed’s head. He could smell the acrid blast.
Bullets penetrated the wall over the grill. Shaw and McMurry turned to face a cloud of gunsmoke.
The men sprinted toward a door about 20 yards away. It led to the bathroom hallway. Shaw slipped as they ran, falling forward. In one hurried motion, McMurry bent over, grabbed Shaw by the back of his pants to help him on his feet, and then sprinted on.
White tile shattered on the wall in front of them.
McMurry made it to the hallway, then tried desperately to kick down a door leading to the kitchen. Unsuccessful, he ducked into the first bathroom on the right — the women’s — joined almost immediately by two other customers, Abede Dasilva and his friend, who had fled to the same safe space.
Dasilva desperately dialed 911.
Shaw — still outside the hallway door — stopped and turned.
A bullet had grazed Shaw's elbow, leaving a bright red trail up his forearm.
He trained his chestnut-colored eyes on the man outside the Waffle House.
He braced for another gunshot.
The shooter paused.
"His gun either got jammed or he was trying to reload," Shaw said. "Not exactly sure, but I saw my opportunity, my window. So I took it."
As the attacker strode through the entrance, Shaw lunged. They wrestled for the rifle, its barrel scorching Shaw's right hand.
Sneed, stuck in the hallway outside the now-locked bathroom, watched through a small vertical window in the door.
"I was thinking, 'He's fitting to be dead,' " Sneed said. "I mean, who is ready to go into Captain America mode at 3 a.m. at the Waffle House?"
Shaw ripped the weapon from the gunman's hand and tossed it. It landed on the other side of the counter, where, in a tiny space beneath the cash registers, a waitress hid, covered protectively by her fiance's body.
Then Shaw forced the gunman outside.
The shooter shed the only clothing he was wearing — a green jacket with extra gun magazines in the pockets — and trotted away on foot.
No hurry in his step, Shaw remembered.'I have two sons in there'
When the gunman was gone, Cordero — who had fled across the street to the shopping center — made his way back.
The first person he saw was the cook collapsed on the sidewalk, his head turned to the right and his right elbow pointing upward. Next, he saw the young man with the car trouble, splayed on the ground at the front door.
Cordero paused for a second, looking down, then stepped over the body and went inside.
A young woman sat half slumped out of a booth. Her eyes wide but her body still, a puddle of blood welled up on the seat behind her.
"It's going to be all right," Cordero told her. "Hang in there."
He didn't notice the other young woman, one with light pink fingernail polish, unmoving beneath her friend. He moved into the kitchen and snatched one of the hysterical servers in a hug.
By then, Abede Dasilva, who had run from the bathroom in a panic and fled out the back door, had come back inside to find his brother.
Akilah Dasilva lay on his stomach amid shards of glass and streaks of red. Akilah’s girlfriend, Tia Waggoner, lay nearby, her body partly obscured behind the counter. One of the Waffle House servers tended to the wounds in her leg.
Abede Dasilva slid to the floor.
"Where you shot at?" Abede asked his brother.
"My arm," Akilah said.
Abede exhaled, shaken but relieved. "Thank you, God, they are still alive."
"It hurts so bad," Akilah said.
"You're going to be OK. You're going to be OK,” he replied, placing his arm around his brother's neck and cradling him.
He took out his phone. There was a text message from his mom — the one she always sent to her kids before she went to bed at night. "All is well?" it read.
Around him, bodies lay strewn across the restaurant. He called his mom. She needed to know.
An ambulance came, and emergency workers swarmed the restaurant. They turned Akilah over. They patched his wound and put him on a stretcher.
His brother stayed with him to the door.
"They wouldn't let me leave," he said. "I was so lost I didn't even think to say, 'That's my brother.' "
Outside, their mother, Shaundelle Brooks, arrived and tried to reach her boys. Authorities wouldn't let her in.
"I have two sons in there," she insisted.
Then, the ambulance pulling out of the parking lot stopped suddenly in front of her. The doors opened. Six medics huddled around the body inside. She couldn’t see the person's face.
All she could see was a pair of white and black Nike sneakers. Her son's.
She called to him over and over again. She got no response.
If he was shot only in the arm, why wasn't he answering?A race to rescue lives
Thirty miles across town, at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Dana Martin was working the night shift at the hospital’s communications center when the radio squawked at 3:41 a.m. reporting a shooting at a Nashville Waffle House.
"Initially they gave us an incorrect address," Martin said. "We didn't have any information on patients, so we didn't get concerned. We did let the ER know."
Six minutes later, Martin got a phone call from Metro police reporting five victims. The next call said eight, then — a few minutes later — it was four.
At about the same time, Dr. Corey Clovis — asleep alongside his wife in their Green Hills home — got a page from the 911 dispatch center.
The chairman of Vanderbilt’s emergency department called the Fire Dispatch center, which confirmed multiple victims. He jumped in his SUV, turned on the emergency communications radio and raced to the hospital.
He arrived just minutes before the first ambulance.
Through the hospital corridors, Waggoner could hear her boyfriend, Akilah, screaming.
Akilah, known as Natrix Dream, often rapped about the bloodshed that claimed close friends. Forget about making a hashtag, let's throw all the guns in a trash bag, he rhymed.
He turned his angst into creative energy, producing music videos with his brother.
At 28, Abede was a father himself now, raising a little girl who loved to curl up in his lap and fall asleep. Akilah was five years younger, and the middle child of five siblings. His mother often ruffled his tight dark curls at the breakfast table and affectionately called him Boo Boo.
Tragedy made the brothers tight. They lost their dad in a car crash when they were just boys.
On that Saturday, they posted their latest music video. The song was called "Look Alive."
Hours later, the gun violence they so often rapped about came for them.
Akilah had been shot in the right shoulder, not his arm like he thought. Bullets also punctured his right lung, fracturing three ribs.
Hearing his screams in the ER, Waggoner — his girlfriend since high school — yelled to him from her hospital gurney, wanting him to know she was there, too.
There was no response.
Akilah Dasilva was pronounced dead at 5:23 a.m.Search ends in tragedy
When Shirl Baker woke up Sunday morning, the shooting filled the television news.
"Good morning," she texted her daughter, DeEbony Groves. "There’s been a shooting in Nashville. Watch your surroundings. I love you."
Then, as usual, she got in her black Chevrolet Tahoe and drove to Grace Tabernacle Christian Center in Portland, Tennessee.
On a visit to Atlanta that weekend, Groves’ brother also awoke to the disturbing news. Facebook notifications filled his feed, friends marking themselves safe.
Then his sister's best friend contacted him. "Did you see this?" she wrote in a Facebook message. "A 21-year-old woman from Gallatin was killed in the shooting."
Di'Angelo Groves called the Pier 1 Imports store on White Bridge Road where he and his sister worked to see if she’d shown up for her 10 a.m. shift.
He called hospitals. He called his mother at church.
At the same time, DeEbony Groves' Belmont sorority sisters also were calling Baker, worried they couldn't reach DeEbony.
Baker told the pastor her daughter was missing. For five minutes the entire congregation prayed.
"I left church in a panic," she said. "I prayed all the way to Nashville."
She arrived at the hospital, where her daughter’s sorority sisters huddled together, crying.
"I gave my daughter's name," Baker recalls. "Nothing. They kept saying they had no one there by that name. I spent two hours at the hospital trying to figure out where my daughter was."
Then, about 4 p.m., her husband called from their Gallatin home.
"Where are you?" he asked. "Are you alone?"
A chaplain had visited, he said. DeEbony would not be coming home.
Baker dropped the phone, screaming.Suspect slips away
While families grieved, the shooting suspect slipped away.
He wasn't in his one-bedroom apartment, where police uncovered more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition, two laptops and a GoPro camera. He could be anywhere.
A tense 34-hour manhunt ensued.
Search dogs tracked his scent. A Metro Nashville police helicopter hovered above the neighborhood. The FBI and U.S. Secret Service assisted in the investigation.
The suspect, police said, had been spotted barefoot and shirtless in the hours after the shooting. Police warned he may be armed with a handgun.
Lydia French felt nauseated at the thought.
She worked as the assistant project manager for the housing subdivision being built next door to Reinking's apartment complex.
French, a woman with wispy white-blond hair and the tanned complexion of a construction worker, brought a truck load of storm drain structures to the job site. She and her husband, Brian, the superintendent on the project, unloaded the materials.
At midday, she got back in the truck, doing paperwork, when she heard her husband shout, telling her to call police.
A man, trudging through the deep mud on the construction site, had disappeared between the wood line and nearby Cane Ridge High School, which was filled with students and staff.
Her stomach turned again.
Undercover narcotics detective Kyle Williams had clocked 20 hours on the manhunt during two rain-soaked days when his team got the call to check out one more tip.
He walked into the woods alone. Thorny shrubs, dead trees and fallen leaves covered the ground.
When the brush rustled, Williams paused and crouched under the foliage. He saw a pair of black pants. Then a man’s head, full of red hair, popped out from behind a tree.Tears are never far away
The Antioch mass shooting left four people dead, all in their 20s.
There is no consensus on what defines a mass shooting in the United States. The federal government describes a mass shooting as an indiscriminate attack that claims three or more lives.
The nonprofit Gun Violence Archive defines a mass shooting as a single incident in which four or more people are shot at or killed at the same time or location — not including the shooter.
Its count for mass shootings in 2018: 331
What experts do agree on is that regardless of what agitates the perpetrators, the survivors of such shootings often bear a lifetime of psychological and physical scars.
In the days that followed, Sneed wrote the Waffle House victims’ names on a piece of paper.
Taurean Sanderlin. Joe Perez Jr. DeEbony Groves. Akilah Dasilva.
He reads them aloud every day.
Sneed was physically all right after the shooting, but he spent hours just sitting down. He didn’t talk to anyone. He couldn’t say anything.
Finally, he opened up to a relative. Now, tears are never far away.
"I cry myself to sleep or cry myself awake," he said.
"If I just sit in front of the window of my house and stare, I worry that something is going to happen. I see faces at night."'Every morning, reality hits me again'
Abede Dasilva doesn’t sleep well at night anymore, anxiety and anger dominating his dreams.
But dawn does nothing to bring solace.
"Waking up reminds you that it was not a nightmare, this was for real," he says.
"And every morning, reality hits me again."
His brother is dead.
His mother has lost a son.
Once every couple of weeks the mothers whose children died in the Waffle House shooting talk by phone or text message.
They encourage each other, Baker said.
DeEbony Groves' mom has a lot of breakdown moments. She cries every morning. Some days she cries all the way to work.
"It sometimes helps me feel like the weight has been lifted," she said.
Her daughter, who had worn light pink nail polish that night, died of two gunshot wounds, about an inch apart. A large fragment of bullet was recovered from her aorta. Other fragments of the copper jacket were taken from her chest.
The sorority sister who shared a booth with DeEbony was wounded but survived.Forever sisters
At the annual regional convention of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, Sharita Henderson trembled.
Her right arm rested on a pillow in her lap as her left hand maneuvered the controls on her mechanical wheelchair.
Dressed in elegant black pants and a top with white lace fringe, Henderson went to the stage and addressed her sorority sisters.
The weekend of the shooting, she and Groves had attended pinnings together.
At the Waffle House, Henderson was shot three times.
"In those last moments," she said, "I wanted to protect someone that I considered my sister."A new life
McMurry wasn’t wounded. He didn’t have a loved one hurt. His best friend wrested the shooter’s gun away, likely saving lives.
The weekend after the shooting, he traveled to Memphis with his wife and son, a curly haired boy who shares his dad's name. McMurry attended a fraternity conference all day.
When he got back, it was near sunset. His little boy bounced on the hotel’s queen bed.
"Daddy, Daddy, look," little Brennan exclaimed as he flew through the air.
It took a moment for McMurry to register. Written in red letters on his son’s white shirt were the words "I am going to be a big brother."
McMurry and his wife wanted a pregnancy. They had been trying for months.
Now, here it was, in the wake of tragedy. It didn’t make sense.
With the news still settling in, McMurry excused himself to the bathroom.
He shut the bathroom door and cried.
The loss of a love
The bones in her right leg were shattered, the skin singed off, or burnt and blackened.
Eight surgeries later, Waggoner fights to walk again.
She posts about her boyfriend, Akilah, the man she loved for more than five years, every day on Facebook.
On the six-month anniversary of the shooting — and of his death — she couldn’t make it to his final resting place. She was in too much pain, both physical and emotional.
She used to fall asleep on his chest. Now, it’s impossible to rest.
"I'd do anything," she writes, "to hear your heart beat again."An 'insane' world
Cordero's heart still races. He has to manage his fear, working at night, in the dark, fixing tires.
After the shooting, he didn’t even get one day off.
He’s had occasions when someone would pop up unexpectedly outside his truck window.
"How spooky is that for me?" he questions. "It really is."
But in the Waffle House parking lot, Cordero had always felt comfortable. He loved the familiarity of the place. He knew the waitresses and cooks by name. In return, they knew just how he liked his coffee.
None of them are there now. Not one returned to work after the shooting.
"The world is a scary place," he says. "But when you’re right in the middle of it, it's more than a scary place, it's just insane."The hunt for justice
In a mustard-colored jumpsuit, his jawline covered with a scruffy red beard, Reinking appeared in court just weeks after he was taken into custody following the Waffle House shooting.
Family members of the injured and the dead packed the courtroom’s small gallery to face Reinking for the first time.
Several moaned and shook their heads as a psychologist testified about Reinking's mental state.
Reinking, at times, grinned.
He sat quietly, his hands in his lap, while a forensic psychologist said he had schizophrenia so severe he would be unable to go to trial without medication and therapy.
A half an hour into the hearing, Judge Mark Fishburn spoke.
"The court does commit Mr. Reinking to Middle Tennessee Mental Health Institution," the Nashville-Davidson County Criminal Court justice declared, "to take whatever measures are reasonably necessary to see that he becomes and retains competency so that the trial in this case can proceed."
In October, Reinking was declared sane enough to stand trial.
While those afflicted by the Waffle House tragedy continue to grapple with the trauma of that night, they also wait for Reinking's trial to begin.
They have just one point they want to try to prove.
That he was there that night, too.Greatest article on the waffle house shooting