Chattanoogans reflect on 2015 mass shooting that killed five service members
"That day, start to finish, there's not a lot that has faded ... I don't know that it'll go away."
July 16, 2015, is a day many Chattanoogans won't forget — a day that for so many began just as any other, but would end with the events and actions of that day ingrained in the memories of those who called the city home.
Four U.S. Marines — Gunnery Sgt. Thomas J. Sullivan, Staff Sgt. David A. Wyatt, Sgt. Carson A. Holmquist and Lance Cpl. Squire K. “Skip” Wells — were killed, along with Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall J. Smith, in a terrorist attack at the United States Naval Reserve Center off Amnicola Highway that day, five years ago.
Marine recruiter Sgt. DeMonte Cheeley was injured just minutes earlier when the gunman opened fire on the glass windows of the joint military recruitment center on Lee Highway.
Nearly 14 years after the Sept. 11 terror attacks shook the country, July 16 was “a wake-up call” for Chattanooga, lawmakers said the following year. The attack rocked the city to its core, and the community immediately united, erecting memorials at the shooting sites as local, state and federal investigators probed the assailant's background and motive.
As in this year, July 16, 2015, was a Thursday. The morning rush had long worn off, and many were settling in at work or in school.
It was 10:45 a.m. when Lance Cpl. Christopher Gilliam “noticed out of the corner of [his] eye a silver Mustang pull up,” according to his statement included in the U.S. Marine Corps' investigation into the shooting and previous Times Free Press reports.
“The only thing I can remember seeing was two arms holding a weapon,” he wrote. “I immediately screamed 'RUN'. As soon as the word left my mouth the first round hit the glass.”
There was a few-second pause between the first shot and the rapid fire that followed, according to the report. Gilliam, Sgt. Cheeley and three others escaped through the back door, Cheeley not yet realizing he'd been shot.
At the same time, U.S. Marine Gunnery Sgt. Camden Meyer was in his office with his then-6-year-old daughter while his wife ran errands, when the first bullet hit the ceiling above his head and a sprinkle of white debris fell on his desk.
At first, he thought maybe one of the recruiters was playing a prank “with a snap cap or something,” he wrote in his statement to investigators. But then he looked out the front door and saw 24-year-old Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez hanging out the side of the silver convertible with an assault rifle aimed at the building.
“As my brain registered it was a shooter,” he wrote, he grabbed his daughter and shielded her body with his as a barrage of bullets flew in.
Meyer tried to keep his daughter flat on the ground and yelled at another recruiter, Sgt. Winfield Thompson, to “stay down until the break in fire” when Thompson looked like he was about to follow the others who had already made it to the back door and were on their way out.
“After about 7-12 seconds I had heard the break in firing and yelled to [Thompson] to 'RUN,'” Meyer wrote.
He scooped up his daughter, and the three of them ran out the back door, following the four others who got out first.
“She wasn't crying,” Meyer previously told the Times Free Press. “She didn't really know what was going on. She just knew that we were moving and Dad was carrying her down the hill.”
By that time, only 30 to 60 seconds had passed.
The Marines regrouped within 10 minutes, and by about that time, Cheeley was starting to realize that maybe he'd been shot. Up until he was checked out by a police officer, Cheeley thought he'd been cut by glass. He was eventually taken to the hospital for treatment of a gunshot wound to the upper leg.
Back at the recruitment center, between 10:55 a.m. and 11 a.m. — just after regrouping — Meyer tried calling the U.S. Naval and Marine Reserve on Amnicola Highway, the Times Free Press reported previously.
He kept hitting redial, but no one ever answered.
At 10:58 a.m., dispatchers received the first calls reporting shots fired at 4210 Amnicola Highway — the reserve center nearly seven miles away — and sent police to the scene.
'A big deal'
Sgt. Jeremy Eames, then an officer, was starting his day on bike patrol having a cup of coffee at a downtown coffee shop when he heard radio chatter about the first shooting that had just taken place at the recruitment center.
“Immediately, I knew. I recognized that's a big deal,” he said in a recent interview.
He walked over to the counter and told the workers, “'Listen to this, what's coming across my radio.' I said, 'This is fixing to make national news. Chattanooga's fixing to make national news.'”
At that point, dispatchers began broadcasting that the shooter was still active and headed toward Amnicola Highway, and Eames realized he may be heading downtown, “or at the very least coming closer.”
“So I just set my coffee down and said, 'I gotta go,' and I hopped on my bike and pedaled as fast as I could back to the [downtown] precinct to get my car,” he said.
Officers all over the city were doing the same thing — rushing to get to the scene, wherever it would be, to stop the shooter.
One officer, Sean O'Brien, was parked at the Police Services Center on Amnicola Highway when he heard the call and initially started heading toward the recruiting center on Lee Highway when Abdulazeez sped past him in the opposite direction, the Times Free Press reported previously.
O'Brien made a U-turn and followed Abdulazeez, who crashed through the reserve's green gate, jumped from his rented Mustang and started shooting before disappearing from sight.
Twenty-two servicemen were working at the reserve center that morning, making sure their gear was clean and in working condition after finishing up their annual two-week training in the deserts around Twentynine Palms, California.
Worried the convertible was rigged to explode, O'Brien pulled to a stop about 70 yards back and retrieved his police rifle.
That's when Officers Grover Wilson, Jeff Lancaster, Keven Flanagan, Lucas Timmons and Dennis Pedigo arrived. Together they moved toward the sound of rifle fire. And then, all of a sudden, they were in the midst of it.
“The sound of the suspect's gunfire, it sounded like — you know, it's one of those things that you hear it on TV, you hear it at the range, but it never sounds like that in real life. It sounded like he was shooting a cannon,” Capt. John Chambers, then a lieutenant, said in a recent interview.
Officers ducked for cover behind whatever they could find, some behind an air conditioning unit and at least one behind a car in the parking lot. But Pedigo and O'Brien were caught in the open, and Pedigo went down, shot in the leg.
“I fell down, bullets were hitting around us,” Pedigo said later that year. “When I got hit, I really wasn't worried about it. I knew that the people I was with would help me, that they were going to take care of what was going on. I just knew I was in no man's land and was trying to find a place to get cover.”
And that is what they did. O'Brien and another officer, Detective Jennifer McCoy, pulled Pedigo to safety.
As they were coming up on the gate, Chambers was arriving.
“My first concern, and kinda what our training is, you know, first thing is bleed control, and I wanted to make sure there wasn't any major blood loss going on,” Chambers said. “So I took my knife out and started cutting his boot off, and of course, he told me just what he thought about me for doing that.”
Pedigo had been escorting a funeral procession on his motorcycle just before responding to the active shooter call, and he did not want his boots ruined.
“He was not a happy camper to say the least,” Chambers said.
During that time, Abdulazeez was gunned down by the officers. The whole exchange of gunfire lasted between three and five minutes.
Lancaster and Wilson ran to make sure Abdulazeez was dead. As they did, they passed Staff Sgt. Wyatt and Gunnery Sgt. Sullivan, who were already dead. Sgt. Holmquist and Lance Cpl. Wells had also died.
'Am I gonna die?'
Not long after Abdulazeez was taken down is when Eames arrived.
It was still an active scene because it was still too early to know whether Abdulazeez had acted alone, and police still needed to clear the two-story reserve center.
So Eames, a SWAT officer, grabbed his rifle, some magazines “and just started looking for work, started looking for something to do.”
He and two other officers decided to check the building. And when other officers saw them heading that way, like birds swarming in formation, those officers fell in line behind them.
“Fire alarms were going off,” Eames said. “It was really difficult to hear. That was the first thing I noticed, is the fire alarms were going off.”
Eames went toward the right and saw bullet holes all over the building. The officers started clearing cubicles before heading down a hallway where they found a door that was cracked open.
“I grabbed another officer that was nearby — another SWAT guy — and I say, 'We need to check this,'” Eames said. “I kicked the door open and we go in, and that's where we encounter Petty Officer Smith and two other Naval servicemen.”
The two servicemen were trying to attend to Smith. They said he needed an ambulance.
“I said, 'We're not gonna be able to get an ambulance down here to him,” Eames said, but “'We'll get him out.'
“I radioed up and let them know we were bringing three out. One was in need of emergency medical treatment.”
Smith, 26, was still conscious and talking at the time.
“He asked me, he said, 'Am I gonna die?'” Eames said, speaking slowly. “I told him, 'No, we're going to get you out of here.'”
“He was complaining about his arm hurting and I thought that was a good sign. He was like, 'You're hurting my arm, you're hurting my arm.' I was like, 'I know brother, I know.' But I was thinking, 'That's a good sign.'”
Outside, the Chattanooga Police Department's armored vehicle was waiting to transport Smith to a secure location to be loaded into an ambulance and taken to the hospital. He'd been shot three times in the arm and abdomen.
Smith's wife and other family members were able to be by his side before he died two days later.
Before he died in the early morning hours of July 18, Smith's father promised his son he'd do whatever he could to take care of his son's wife and three young daughters.
Smith and the four Marines, Gunnery Sgt. Sullivan, Staff Sgt. Wyatt, Sgt. Holmquist and Lance Cpl. Wells, were all posthumously awarded Purple Heart medals after the FBI declared the attacks were inspired by a foreign terrorist organization five months later.
'All still there'
For the officers and investigators who responded to the shooting that day, July 16 was an event that will never be forgotten.
“It's one of the few things in my career that my movements that day, almost step-by-step, are etched in my mind. That day, start to finish, there's not a lot that has faded,” Eames said.
“Most of that is all still there, and I don't know that it'll go away.”
The sounds, the smells, the feelings of the day, they all haunt those who lived through it.
“It's one of those things that time never washes those feelings away,” Chambers said. “Which, you know, can bring its own demons with it sometimes.
“I mean, from the human side of it it gets forgotten sometimes that we're human beings just like everybody else, and stuff affects us,” he said. “It absolutely does. I mean, you can't sit and see the things that we saw that day first-hand and it not affect you long-term.”
The yells and screams coming over the radio and the heartbreaking weight of some of the things that were said that day, some that some officers may never repeat, is what sticks with Chambers.
“Getting Petty Officer Smith out of there to try to get him help, yeah, that was tough,” he said. “That, and the fact that he didn't make it just to be plain and simply, it hurts.
“Our job is to go in and save who we can save we got Petty Officer Smith out and thinking, 'Okay, you know, at least we were able to save one.' And then when he passed away, that just — that was, that was pretty rough.”
For Eames, it's fire alarms.
“Fire alarms still give me problems sometimes,” he said. “When fire alarms go off, sometimes they take me back there for just a minute. It's a — I have to shake it off for just a few minutes or a few seconds because it takes you back. It's not a pleasant feeling for just a few seconds.”
But, he said, “it's still been one of my greatest honors because I was able to carry a wounded service member off of what had become his battlefield and give him an opportunity to see his family for a few minutes.”
That's a sentiment that's been echoed by so many officers since then.
“Chattanooga officers always just rise to the occasion when it hits the fan, and July 16 was no different,” Eames said. “Story after story after story, and mine is just one of hundreds.”
And it wasn't just law enforcement that rose to the occasion that day and in the days that followed.
The community came together in a way that remains a part of the city's culture today.
That same day, the slogan #NoogaStrong, or “Chattanooga Strong,” began to appear across the city. From social media posts to car decals and billboards to T-shirts, it became a catch-all phrase to encapsulate how the city felt: severely wounded, but its spirit undefeated.
In the aftermath of the 2015 attacks, there were some signs of anger and hatred, the Times Free Press reported previously. A woman stood on the Walnut Street bridge with a sign that said: “Ship out Arabs.” And a few people stood outside of a mosque the Friday after the attack with a sign that said: “This religion and this building offends me.”
But even louder were the signs that the community could move forward together.
That same Friday night, nearly 1,000 people crowded into Olivet Baptist Church downtown, and many local Muslims were there, some in traditional head scarves.
Pastors asked the group not to let what happened that July day divide the community. A member of the Islamic center spoke near the end, and when he was finished, the crowd clapped and cheered.
Vigils were held. Prayers were said. It was a community coming together in compassion rather than hatred.
Now, whenever tragedy strikes, the slogan reappears. From the 2016 Woodmore school bus crash, multiple floods over the years and most recently, the deadly Easter Sunday tornadoes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the city has come together to sing that one chorus: #NoogaStrong.
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