They Survived Working On The Frontlines Of The Pandemic. Then The Shooter Arrived.

“I know in a week no one will remember and life just keeps going on, but these people are gone and I am really scared.”

BOULDER — King Soopers clerk Emily Giffen doesn’t know how she’ll go back to work, knowing it will mean watching shoppers step on the same patch of brown cement floor near the carts where her coworker’s body lay slumped after a shooter killed her and nine others on Monday.

Giffen had been on a short break that frigid spring afternoon, sitting and smoking her cigarette outside the supermarket, when she suddenly saw a man sprint across the parking lot, stop mid-step, stumble, and fall like a snapped twig. Seconds later, another man in dark, heavy clothing ran up “with a giant fucking gun” and shot him three times in the back as he lay on the ground, the 27-year-old told BuzzFeed News. She grabbed the young woman sitting next to her, a stranger, and they took off as the shooter pointed his gun in their direction, bullets puncturing the wall where Giffen’s head had been.

woman sitting on steps

She’s finally washed all the brick crumbles out of her dark curls, but she can’t stop thinking about the people who died at the store where she’s worked for three years: the employees who had become like siblings, the regular customers she never really knew but whose kids’ names, coffee orders, usual breakfast cereals she could recall. They didn’t deserve to die in their neighborhood supermarket. How does a person go back to work after that? Giffen has asked herself, especially after a year of risking her own health daily to serve customers who have at times been scared, angry, and aggressive because of the pandemic.

“This year was supposed to be better,” she said. “I feel like all of us in 2020 put all our hopes and expectations on 2021 — at least that’s what I did.”

As has become an American ritual, members of the shocked and shattered community gathered this week outside the cordoned-off store, laying flowers, candles, crosses, and cards in memory of the 10 people who were killed. Among those who paid their respects, their eyes wide, wet, and red-rimmed above their masks, was Damien Rodriguez, a store manager at a King Soopers nine miles away. He and other grocery managers in the district came to support their colleagues, bringing 10 bouquets, each one with the name of a victim. Three King Soopers employees, Denny Stong, Rikki Olds, and Teri Leiker, died in the attack, and another victim, Lynn Murray, was working for Instacart at the time. The attack hit close to home for grocery workers across the country, but it’s been particularly brutal, Rodriguez said, for several of his employees who have family members working at the Boulder King Soopers location.

“It could have been one of them,” he said.

At a King Soopers in nearby Arvada, less than a mile away from the shooter’s home, employees wondered why they weren’t targeted. “Why Boulder?” asked Mike Plummer, who’s worked there since 2014. “It’s 16 miles away from this store. It’s insane.”

Giffen can't stop obsessing over that, too, wondering why a shooter chose her store and killed coworkers who had become her family. She said Olds, an ambitious, insightful store manager who “had big goals” and was recently promoted, had become her rock. The two women talked about their futures together, what they could be. She described Stong, a 20-year-old aspiring pilot, as the “shithead little brother” she never had. Now they’re gone, and she wonders how her life will ever be normal again.

“They are like my family here, and now they are just dead on the floor,” she said. “Denny wasn’t even supposed to be there, he was buying a box of strawberries and then he became nothing. I know in a week no one will remember and life just keeps going on, but these people are gone and I am really scared. I don’t know how to work anywhere.”

In a statement, Kroger, the parent company of King Soopers, said it is “horrified and deeply saddened by the senseless violence.” The company is offering counseling services at a hotel near the Boulder King Soopers and, according to several employees, will still pay those who were scheduled to work this week even though the store remains closed.

Though the thought of going back when the store reopens is terrifying, Giffen said she doesn’t know what else to do and she can’t afford not to. Like many food service and retail workers, Giffen has been in the industry for most of her life, since she was 14, and lives paycheck to paycheck. She likes Boulder and the close-knit community she’s found, but stocking toilet paper and dealing with spoiled food returns often has left her feeling invisible, exhausted, and the brunt of someone’s bad day.

Then the pandemic hit, and she, her 32 colleagues, and thousands of other low-wage workers were suddenly recognized as essential to the country’s survival. Being on the frontline has meant working harder and longer than ever before, dealing with customers who have become combative over mask and safety protocols, and, for many grocery workers, getting sick with COVID-19, often requiring them to take off work without getting extra pay for it. According to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, 420 frontline workers, including 155 grocery store workers, have died after contracting COVID-19, and nearly 83,000 have gotten sick.

At King Soopers in Boulder, a handful of employees tested positive within a two-week period last March, Giffen recalled, and then her store manager got sick. But they rode it out, because they had to. At first, she said the shutdowns had a positive impact on her life. She was making a little more money, owing to Kroger’s “hero pay,” and she finally felt seen and respected.

“Being a grocery store worker before the pandemic was like, you don’t matter, this is what kids do who didn’t go to college,” she said. “Then there was this crazy, empowering moment where people needed me as a low-level worker, whereas they never thought they needed people like me before.”

But that didn’t last long. In Colorado and all over the country, people got ugly and violent. Videos of customers yelling at or even attacking employees over mask mandates went viral. Companies like Kroger ended their pay bumps after a couple months.

When the country shuttered last year, 20-year-old Logan Ezra Smith lost his job at Safeway, where he’d been a courtesy clerk and meat worker. It was a huge blow, since he and his mom, also a grocery store worker, were homeless at the time, surfing on the couches of Safeway colleagues and his ex-girlfriend. After applying to a slew of jobs, he got hired at King Soopers in late March 2020 and was thrown into the pandemic chaos immediately, working 50 to 60 hours a week for $13.25 an hour in nearly every department, becoming a Starbucks barista and a deli meat slicer. He quickly clicked with the eclectic, quirky group of workers at his new store, who became a support system. Like Giffen, he loved Denny Stong like an annoying little brother, and got close with Stong’s mom, a district coordinator who had worked at King Soopers for nearly a decade. She was on her lunch break in the parking lot when the shooter barged into the store and killed her son.

“I screamed so much my voice won’t work,” Stong’s mother later wrote on Facebook. “He was going to flight school to be a pilot. He was set to solo soon. He is flying solo now.”

Smith recalled how fun it was to be around Teri Leiker, a karaoke fan with a big personality. She’d met her boyfriend at work, and Smith remembered them as the cutest couple.

On the afternoon of the shooting, Smith had just settled into the coffee shop kiosk with a coworker when a customer ran in and yelled that there was a shooter outside. Smith ran outside, saw a man lying on the ground dead, then ran back inside and called 911. He shoved his coworker into a corner, covering her with trash cans for protection, and then tried to shrink his 6-foot-4-inch frame down. He felt like he was holding his breath for nearly an hour. Besides the sporadic pop of gunshots and intermittent automated messages coming from different departments within the store, all he could hear was silence. He had no idea that Stong, whom he’d been talking to about their weekend plans as the bullets started to fly, was dead.

“We ran off in separate directions and that was the last time I ever saw him,” Smith said.

Smith has been texting this week with Giffen, who, like him, feels an overwhelming sense of guilt for surviving. Even though they helped protect others around them, they can’t help but feel sick that they couldn’t save the work friends who meant so much to them. Though they’re alive, it feels like so much is gone. They don’t know where to go from here, what the next few weeks will look like, how they will support themselves and pay their bills.

Giffen hasn’t been able to go home. She, along with the Stong family and a handful of other King Soopers employees, all live in a complex across the street. Her apartment faces the grocery store’s parking lot, and she can see the garage where, during the attack, she joined a crowd of other panicked survivors who kept falling over and stepping on one another in the ice and snow. Sitting on another coworker’s couch in an apartment in a neighboring town on Tuesday, she touched her head repeatedly, explaining how she grabbed the ponytail of the young woman she’d been sitting next to when the shooting began.

“She screamed, ‘Please don’t leave me,’ so I grabbed her by her hair and pulled her up and told her I wasn’t leaving her. ‘But you have to fucking run,’” Giffen said. “It was so surreal that a total stranger was looking to me to survive when I’m this small human who can barely walk up a flight of stairs. I kept telling her I would protect her and I don’t even know her name.”

It’s even more surreal, she added, because employees recently had to watch a video about what to do in an active shooter situation, in response to a shooting at a Texas Kroger warehouse last August. It was supposed to train them for something like Monday’s attack, though Giffen and Smith said it’s something they’d already been thinking about. Living in America, and especially in Colorado, means there’s a chance you could wind up dead simply for existing when and wherever a shooter chooses to strike.

That knowledge has left Giffen feeling paralyzed. While she’s unable to comprehend going back to her job, she also knows she won’t feel safe anywhere else.

“You know how they say lightning never strikes twice, but it scares me to go somewhere different and have this happen again,” she said.

Again, she brings up the spot on the floor where her friend’s body fell. How is she supposed to watch someone push a shopping cart over it and not fall apart?

“It’s hallowed ground now,” she said. “And I wish I could just forget it.”

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