Mentally Scarred for Life by Massacre
Lenore Alvillar-Aguilar marched into the Cal State Fullerton library an eager freshman, the first in her family to attend college. She emerged an hour later trembling and crying, a witness to one of the worst mass shootings in California history.
Seven people died and two were wounded in the 1976 rampage by a university janitor named Edward Charles Allaway. Alvillar-Aguilar and dozens of others got out of the white concrete building without a scratch.
But that does not mean they were unscathed.
Alvillar-Aguilar eventually dropped out of college, unable to cope with the anxiety that rocked her anew each time she stepped onto campus. A library receptionist who survived that day said she developed alcoholism that tore her family apart and eventually led her to the welfare line and jail. One library employee, tormented by guilt over being off the day of the shooting, committed suicide eight months later.
The violence at the university library doesn’t approach the scale of more recent mass killings, let alone the losses experienced at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But because a quarter of a century has passed, these survivors’ experiences provide a striking glimpse into the long-term effects of being a spectator to violence.
Interviews with a group of people who found themselves in Allaway’s direct path underscore the mysterious and highly individual ways in which trauma plays out.
For many, the emotional wounds were immediately visible. Others coped for years until a “trigger” forced them to confront the trauma.
The Sept. 11 terrorism was just one of the triggers that has made recent months difficult for Cal State Fullerton survivors. Allaway--who was found not guilty by reason of insanity--made an unsuccessful bid to be released from a state mental hospital. Backed by some the hospital’s doctors, Allaway argued that his mental illness was in remission. But a judge last month ruled that Allaway remains a danger to society and should remain incarcerated.
“We have big brains and good memories and they often are helpful to us,” said Stanford psychiatrist David Spiegel, an expert in post-traumatic stress disorder who set up a Web site to help monitor survivors of the World Trade Center attacks. “But they also keep in our consciousness things that have been profoundly disturbing.”
Although most students were home for the summer, the basement of the Cal State Fullerton library was a busy place on July 12, even at 8:30 on a Monday morning.
Graphic artists, counselors and janitors roamed in and out of tiny offices, their voices echoing in narrow hallways. In Room 40, receptionist Karen Dwinell was listening to her colleague Paul Herzberg talk about a recent European vacation when she spotted the janitor moving toward her.
Allaway shoved the barrel of a .22-caliber rifle into her chest.
Herzberg, who had been sitting on Dwinell’s desk, stepped to his feet to defend her. Allaway turned and shot him in the heart.
The janitor then shot a third employee in the office, Bruce Jacobson, who collapsed into Dwinell’s arms. Allaway then moved to a different office and kept shooting.
It must have been 15 minutes, maybe longer, before Dwinell built up the courage to step out of the office. She reached the hallway, looked into the graphic arts office and saw a pair of legs, motionless on the floor. She turned and tried to run, but stumbled, her platform shoes slipping on bullet shells.
“They’re dying all around me!” she remembers screaming as she climbed up the stairs that led to the university quad.
After hours of questioning by police, Dwinell was allowed to go home. She stopped at a friend’s home that night and opened a bottle of liquor.
“I sat and I drank and I drank,” Dwinell recalls.
She did not get counseling. She worked at the Fullerton campus for the next 11 years.
“Every time I walked down that hall, I could see myself fumbling for the keys and stumbling over the shells and wondering whether he was going to come from around the corner,” Dwinell said.
Dwinell developed a breathing exercise to deal with recurring panic attacks. She’d hold her breath and count slowly to 30.
She also began to lose hope for the future. She said she started to despise herself. The only time she felt better was when she was drinking.
“I ruined relationships. I ignored my children, the problems they were having. I was constantly drowning myself in my own sorrows. I blamed myself for not being killed that day.” She thought about suicide.
Dwinell, now 58, said she put her drinking problem behind her about six years ago, thanks in large part to a self-improvement group she said helped restore her confidence.
“I like myself now,” she said.
But her fears and anxiety come flooding back whenever she thinks about that day.
“Every time there’s a school shooting, it brings it all back,” she said.
Then came Sept. 11.
“I can relate,” she said of the survivors. “The people that lived through it, they probably will have nightmares forever.”
After shooting his first two victims, Allaway marched down the narrow, windowless hallway toward 16-year-old Monica Silbas, who was backed against a wall in the library basement. The man with the rifle turned toward her, but didn’t fire. Instead, he shot into a graphic arts studio, striking artist Frank Teplansky twice in the back and once in the head.
Silbas, who was on campus as part of a special program for high school students, dashed into an office, locked the door and began praying. After about 20 minutes of hearing nothing, Silbas climbed a stairwell and stepped out of the library. She could not speak. She would not move. Paramedics rushed her to a hospital, where she lay in a coma-like state for a week.
After two weeks, she was released from the hospital and almost immediately taken by detectives back to the library basement to describe the day of the shootings. Her face started twitching. Her hands shook. A doctor who accompanied her on the visit ordered her to leave the campus at once.
Silbas returned to Santa Ana Valley High School, went on to Sacramento State University, married and became an airline labor consultant. She believed she had put those moments at the Cal State Fullerton library behind her.
Then, about 1991, some 15 years after the shootings, she returned to the Fullerton campus to visit a memorial the university erected for the seven slain victims.
“As soon as I stepped foot on that campus I started to shake. I had no control over it. I just started crying,” Silbas said.
Fearing the onset of another panic attack, she climbed back in her car and drove away.
Psychiatrists say Silbas experienced classic delayed post-traumatic stress.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota and the Veteran Affairs Medical Center recently studied 244 World War II veterans and found that 84% of them suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including some who experienced their first symptoms decades after the war--such as at retirement.
“If they stayed active they were OK,” said Judith Herman, a Harvard psychiatry professor. “But when they got ill or had a lot of free time they had experiences of feeling hopeless.”
Silbas, 42, who now lives in Maryland, said she still hopes to return to the Fullerton campus again.
“I keep saying I have to go back,” Silbas said. “I have to close that part of it.”
Kathy Morris was sorting library cards when she heard the gunfire. She suspected someone was lighting firecrackers, so she left her desk to investigate.
What Morris saw next was Allaway shooting 32-year-old library employee Stephen Becker.
Morris said she gathered as many employees as she could, dragged them into an office and locked the door. She hid under a desk and dialed campus police.
The next few days were a blur.
“I know I went to Steve’s funeral,” she said, “but I don’t remember it.”
Like Karen Dwinell, Morris did not seek counseling before she returned to work. A single mother of three small children, Morris said she felt she had no choice but to keep working.
“In retrospect, that wasn’t real smart,” she said.
Morris, now 57 and living in Yorba Linda, said “to this day the Fourth of July is not my favorite holiday. Even though I enjoy fireworks, anything that sounds like gunshots is a little unnerving.”
All told, though, Morris feels she’s gotten through it remarkably well. What enables some people to handle trauma as years pass better than others is a topic of much interest among trauma-stress experts.
“As a psychiatrist I find it far more meaningful what the person brought to the trauma than how they were traumatized,” said Frank Ochberg, a Michigan State University psychiatry professor.
By the time religious studies professor Jason Fenton saw Allaway, the janitor was out of bullets, running from the library toward a parked car. Fenton thought about trying to tackle the fleeing gunman, but instead ran to check on the victims.
He saw library worker Becker in a pool of blood. Fenton soon learned that several of his friends had died.
Looking back, Fenton, now 70, believes he was able to cope fairly well with the events of that day. Like Morris, he said he was able to quickly refocus on the rest of his life--something he attributes in large part to his combat experience with Israel’s defense forces in 1948.
When he thinks of that day in 1976, his thoughts often turn not to his own experiences but those of a colleague who suffered more profoundly.
A few days after the shootings, a young library employee approached Fenton and talked about his grief. He had the day off on July 12 and was spared Allaway’s bullets. He told the professor that he felt guilty he was not able to protect his friends. He said he could hear the victims’ voices when he was alone in the university’s audio-visual studio.
“He said the voices were telling him he should have been with them,” said co-worker Michael Casey.
About 8 1/2 months after the shootings, the young employee handed his wristwatch to a co-worker. “I’m not going to need this anymore,” he said. He climbed to the fifth floor of the campus Humanities Building and jumped off a balcony.
Feelings of guilt and grief are common among survivors of tragedy, research has shown. Spiegel, the Stanford psychiatrist, said he noticed the same symptoms among survivors of a 1993 mass shooting at a San Francisco law office that left eight dead.
“The thing that was most striking, everyone was affected, even the people who weren’t there, who’d gone home early. They felt guilty,” Spiegel said. “These people feel in retrospect they should have been there and they chickened out when there’s no way in God’s Earth they could have known.”
Alvillar-Aguilar, the incoming freshman, was so excited about attending Cal State Fullerton that she arrived in a counselor’s office more than an hour before a scheduled orientation.
“He was telling me, ‘You have a real bright future,’ and then all of a sudden we heard shots,” she said.
For the next 15 minutes, she hid under a desk. The counselor eventually led her through the office, where she sidestepped bodies on her way out of the building.
“The bullet holes were very small. They weren’t breathing. I felt very bad because I couldn’t help them,” she said.
About a month later, Alvillar-Aguilar began her freshman year. But whenever she set foot on campus, her heart would start racing and she’d feel sick to her stomach.
If an assignment required a library visit, she’d either skip it or drive to her native East Los Angeles and use a community college library. In one semester, she’d had enough. And 25 years later, Alvillar-Aguilar still has no bachelor’s degree.
“People don’t like to think of themselves as changed from these events or having a lifelong influence from something that was a few moments’ duration, but that is what happens,” said Dr. Lenore Terr, a San Francisco psychiatrist who studied the effects on Chowchilla schoolchildren who were buried alive during a 1976 kidnapping. “When you talk to kids who’ve been traumatized, they seem to believe they have no future. They give up on themselves.”
Alvillar-Aguilar, now 43, said that when she goes to work each day as a clerk at a large government building, she will sometimes plot out in her mind how she’ll respond if there is some type of an attack. The terrorism of Sept. 11 has made things worse.
“It’s so depressing,” she said. “So many victims--living and dead.”
At a psychologist’s urging, she filled a journal with detailed memories of the shooting. This summer, she returned to the library basement for the first time in a quarter of a century. The drive took about 25 minutes from her home in Whittier.
A recent remodeling dramatically changed the basement, but the feeling was still the same: narrow halls that wound like a maze, with offices stacked against each other. She tried to figure out where the office was. She pointed out where she saw the bodies.
“Coming here was part of the healing process for me,” she said. “I’m no longer afraid. I’m sad about it. But I’m glad I made it away.”
‘The people that lived through it, they probably will have nightmares forever.’