At Hartford Distributors, Work Brings Relief

"I was afraid to come back, I admit it."

Michael Raymond arrived at Hartford Distributors Inc. in Manchester at 6:45 a.m. Wednesday, eight days after his coworker Omar Thornton killed eight men before turning the gun on himself in Connecticut's worst workplace massacre.

Raymond said he had chills running down his spine during a ceremony outside the office and warehouse. He was among more than 100 people there, including Teamsters from beer distributors throughout Connecticut and Rhode Island who were on hand to help out. Men draped arms over each others' shoulders. Women hugged.

"Everybody was together, and we're all going through the same thing together," said Raymond, 48.

For dozens of workers, a comforting first day, with shared pizza, flowers and sympathy cards around the office and hugs from delivery route customers, was a welcome respite from traumatic memories.

Most of the men and women who work at Hartford Distributors Inc. were back on the job Wednesday, although managers told those who weren't ready to do whatever felt right. Before they walked into the warehouse, company president Ross Hollander spoke to them on the front lawn, at a makeshift memorial in front of the company sign.

"We've done our grieving. It's time for us to go back and do what we do best," he told them.

Employees overwhelmingly wanted to return, Hollander said, "to go about their lives, go do their jobs, go earn a paycheck for their families."

The company chose Wednesday as the reopening for two reasons — one is that the last funeral, for Francis J. Fazio Sr., was held Tuesday. The other was that shiva, the weeklong first phase of Jewish mourning, ended Tuesday for the family of Louis Felder, a manager who was killed.

Six hours into his workday, as he drove a forklift, Raymond said, "Now that I am back, it's a whole lot better."

That feeling was widespread Wednesday inside the office and warehouse.

Raymond said he had been directly in danger's path during the shootings. He said he heard the pop-pop-pop of bullets, but they were soft enough that he didn't recognize the sound. He said he walked into the offices to find out what the noise was.

"I asked Omar. He held up a gun," Raymond said. He said he thought, "'OK, I better get out of here.'" As he walked out the front door, he saw a secretary frozen in fear. "I just picked her up and made her go," he said. He looked embarrassed as he described how he had to shove her out. "I don't like pushing women," he said. "I didn't like doing it."

On opening day, inventory manager John Kuehn Jr. wore a green and white ribbon attached to his shirt with an Anheuser Busch pin. Green stands for preventing workplace violence, and white represents purity, he said. Many of the drivers wore the same symbol.

Kuehn had already been inside the warehouse — someone had to bring in the clean-up crews — but still found the ritual deeply meaningful.

"The ceremony was touching," he said. After a moment of silence for their slain friends, a bagpiper played as they walked toward the building. Later, a line of delivery trucks rolled slowly out the driveway. Hollander and other company and union officials hugged drivers who leaned out of their cabs. Each driver pulled his air horn again and again. The different tones echoed in the air, like a song of defiance. That moved Kuehn most, "the camaraderie of the trucks leaving."

Hollander and other managers had worked through the week to prepare a temporary offsite office. But no one wanted that. "The girls came in this morning, said, 'No, we want to work here, it's our home,'" he said.

The offices in Manchester still bear the scars of last week's violence. In Linda Davidson's office, there's a large square of concrete flooring where carpet had been cut away.

"There's a few doors that are beat up pretty bad," she said. Most of the women hadn't come to work yet that morning. "It was before 8, thank God."

Davidson, who has worked at the company for 35 years, said "it was tough to walk in the door," but said that being at work, even answering voicemails and e-mails and texts from customers, takes her mind off what she witnessed. She'd left her cellphone in the office as she fled. "My boss ran in and said, 'Get out, somebody's shooting!'"

Returning "makes me feel like the terrible events of last week can't take away what we have going here," she said.

For Raymond, surviving the terror and returning to work has changed how he sees himself. "We went through a real tough time. You think of yourself as being stronger."

Two men were shot that day and survived. Steve Hollander, a nephew of Ross's and a company vice president, was shot twice, but the wounds were superficial. Jerry Rosenstein, a 77-year-old man who tried to run Thornton over with a golf cart, is still in the hospital.

"He was trying to save other people," Ross Hollander said. "He's a true hero. He's doing well. His family is just stalwart. Just absolutely the rock — and so is Jerry Rosenstein."

When Rosenstein regained consciousness, Hollander was in the hospital room, and the older man's thoughts turned to work. Rosenstein is in charge of promotional displays, and warned about a shipment of those items.

"There's a trailer coming in," Hollander recounted Rosenstein saying. "You tell those guys they can't touch it until I'm there."

On a get-well poster for Rosenstein, one of the sign shop workers wrote: "So glad you're holding on, miss you Big guy! Get a full recovery so you can come back and yell at us!"

Hollander said he was moved by "the brotherhood that's been here today," and described how drivers from many other Budweiser distributors stepped up to help. "Levine Distributors, Williams Distributors, Dichello Distributors, McLaughlin-Moran from Rhode Island."

Some of the workers were from South Windsor's Franklin Distributors, which merged with HDI and is in the process of combining operations.

Elizabeth Pendleton, whose husband Robin "Packi" Pendleton has worked at Franklin for 23 years, stood across the street for hours Wednesday morning with a sign that read, "TEAMsters Stick Together, NOTHING Can Stop US." She said the moment of unity was an important part of the grieving process.

Packi was at the ceremony. They were close friends with Edwin Kennison Jr. "Eddie had a giant heart, as big as he was," she said.

The tragedy "touched so many thousands of lives, way beyond these walls," Pendleton said. "The hardest part to me was hugging the wives that lost their husbands. You say, 'I'm sorry for your loss.' It's not enough."

As she stood with her sign, her cellphone rang, and her husband told her he'd be delivering beer in Manchester that day. She replied, "Just hang tough when you're doing Manchester, you know what I mean? Just be positive. I love you."

Warehouse worker John Kozyra, 59, has worked for HDI for 37 years, and plans to retire in 2011. Kozyra said his close friends who died "would want us to get back to work." He specifically mentioned Craig Pepin, his friend of 36 years, whom he had helped get into the business. "I know I miss him a lot. I see his hand trucks over there."

After Pepin's death, Kozyra heard that his friend learned the Saturday before he was killed that he was going to become a grandfather for the first time. "It broke my wife's heart. It broke my heart, too."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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