Their bond is forged in blood

I looked into the woman's face. Her large brown eyes widened with fear. She winced in pain. Blood spurted from her thighs.

I dropped my purse and knelt beside her on the asphalt.

Reporters are trained to remain detached, to observe and record without interfering. But the circumstances that Saturday afternoon compelled me to reach out and help this stranger, the victim of a drive-by shooting in South Los Angeles.

From that chance encounter, a bond would grow between us -- fleeting but powerful. Later, I would learn about her life, that she was a working single mother who had just moved to the high desert to escape gang violence. But at that moment, all I could think about was how to stop the bleeding.

Someone had ripped up a white T-shirt and tied the strips of cloth around her legs, below her shorts, as tourniquets. I put my hands on the bloodstained rags and pressed. She cringed but did not complain.

I had taken a first aid course before going to Baghdad on assignment in 2006. I hadn't needed to use the training in Iraq. I never imagined I would need it in Los Angeles.

I remembered I was supposed to make sure the victim was alert and her airways clear. I asked her if she could breathe. She said yes but that the sun was boiling the pavement beneath her.

"I need to move," she moaned, tugging at her pink tank top. "I got to get out of here!"

Several people offered to carry her into the shade. But I had been taught never to move an injured person unless absolutely necessary. Her blood was already coating the ground.

"How many times have you been shot?" I asked, my voice trembling.

Twice, she said, once in each leg.

"Do you have any other injuries?"

No, she said.

I looked at her face, now shining with sweat. I could see she was worried the shooters would return.

So was I.

--

I had gone to South Los Angeles to report on a different shooting, one that had claimed someone's life the night before in the same spot.

On Friday, July 10, L.A. County sheriff's deputies had shot and killed Woodrow Player Jr., 22, a parolee and father of three who had ties to the Crips gang. Deputies shot Player when he reached for his waistband during a foot chase. What they had believed was a gun turned out to be a cellphone.

The next morning, Player's friends set up a memorial of votive candles and helium balloons in the alley where he had been killed, off Imperial Highway west of Vermont Avenue. The balloons were blue and black, Crips colors.

Player's relatives had gathered in a driveway that connected the alley to Imperial Highway. They were tearful and angry, shouting that he did not have to die. I walked over to talk to them.

It was a hot weekend. There were few trees and little shade.

Suddenly, I heard a popping sound. A Times photographer working with me pointed back toward the memorial.

"Look," he said. "It's so hot, the balloons are popping."

I hung around for a few more hours, interviewing neighbors and observing the scene. Eventually, the photographer left, advising me to stay out of the alley.

I saw why. A crowd had gathered, mostly young men wearing Crips colors. A teenager, his upper arms covered with Crips tattoos, sprayed a wall with graffiti. Deputies cruised by without stopping.

I headed south across Imperial Highway, looking for a former girlfriend of Player's. I was about a block south of Imperial when I heard popping again. This time it wasn't balloons.

I knew, because the last time I heard this sound, I was in Iraq.

I turned and walked toward the sound, dialing 911 on my cellphone. The call didn't go through.

"Was that shooting?" I asked a group of men leaning against a fence.

They just stared.

"Sounded like it," said an elderly man walking past. "I'm going home. You should, too."

I called my editor with the news: "There's been another shooting."

I stared across Imperial Highway at the driveway I had just left, about 50 feet away. I could see several bodies sprawled on the ground. Traffic slowed to take in the spectacle.

"I have to go," I said, and rushed across the street.

--

As I pressed on the tourniquets, trying to stop the bleeding, my hands trembled. I tried to steady them. The woman complained that the hot pavement was burning her legs.

"When it burns, just squeeze my arm," I told her.

A man took off his shirt and helped her sit on it. Someone else called 911.

Minutes later, the first deputy arrived, followed by a dozen others. I listened as they questioned the woman, asking her to spell her name: Rashaun Williams.

I wanted to write it down, but my notebook was tucked away in my purse. When paramedics arrived, I stepped back and a deputy strung yellow police tape between us. I handed him my business card and asked him to pass it to Williams. She waved to me as paramedics carried her to an ambulance headed for Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood.

I returned to the newsroom and wrote a short article for the next day's paper about community reaction to Player's death and the drive-by shooting. It ran on Page A28.

I spent that Sunday at home, trying not to think about what I'd seen. I could not forget Williams and kept wondering if she would be all right.

On Monday morning, I called Centinela Hospital as I drove to an interview and asked for Rashaun Williams. I was nervous and unsure what I would say if I reached her.

"She's here," the operator said. And then, before I could stop her, "Let me transfer you to her room."

As soon as Williams heard my voice, she started sobbing.

"Molly," she said. "You have to come over here."

I cleared my schedule and drove to Inglewood. When I walked into Williams' hospital room, she gave me a big smile. She had tied her hair up in a silky flowered scarf. Morphine flowed through an IV in one of her arms. Both her legs were swaddled in blankets.

Her right leg was so swollen and tender that the slightest movement made her flinch, even with the morphine. A bullet had shattered her right femur and lodged in her hip.

She was upset with the nurses, who she said were giving her a hard time. She thought it was because of her tattoos. They were not gang-related, just cherries, a star, Hello Kitty and the names of her mother and daughter.

"I'm not a bad person," Williams said, tears in her eyes. "I didn't deserve this."

She was also angry over a television news report that described her and the three other injured bystanders as gang members.

Williams, I learned, was 29 and worked as a home health aide and school crossing guard. She grew up in Harbor-Gateway and until recently lived with her mother in a tough section of Torrance. She had just moved to Lancaster in search of a safer neighborhood for her 6-year-old daughter, Ky'mariy Redd.

She had been in South Los Angeles the day of the shooting to attend her aunt's 60th birthday party and buy a mattress for her new apartment. She left her aunt's house on New Hampshire Avenue shortly after 2 p.m. to buy a soda and chips at a liquor store on Imperial Highway.

Her memory of the attack was like a movie clip: A brown Buick sedan pulled up beside her in slow motion. A dark-skinned man in a black-and-white hat and white T-shirt pointed a gun out the window. Smoke rose from the barrel after he fired.

Williams said she tried to run, "but my legs just flapped." She fell and started to pray that she would not lose her legs.

At one point, Williams said, her vision faded and she thought she might die.

"When I grabbed your arm," she said, "I was about to pass out."

Doctors planned to reinforce her shattered thighbone with metal pins. They said they would remove the bullet from her hip if they could.

I stayed with Williams for a while before nurses came to take her to surgery. She gave me her phone number. As the nurses wheeled her to the elevator and we said goodbye, I had a hollow feeling.

I had been the victim of crimes: robbery, theft, assault. But I had never been injured. I left the hospital shaken by the thought that it could have been me in that bed -- helpless, trapped, unsure if I would ever fully recover.

A few days later, I called Williams at home. She sounded upbeat. Doctors had successfully inserted pins in her leg and removed the bullet. She was happy to be home with her daughter but still in pain. Before we said goodbye, I asked if I could visit. She said yes.

I drove to Lancaster on a scorching afternoon. Her gated apartment complex had carefully tended shrubs, assigned parking spaces and a pool. Relatives let me into her two-bedroom apartment, which was spacious but empty -- she hadn't had time to furnish it. Her daughter's wood-frame bed was the only real piece of furniture. Williams needed the bed, so Ky'mariy was sleeping on her mother's air mattress.

Ky'mariy darted around us in her bathing suit, bringing her mother bottled water so she could take her pain medication and chirping about plans to take a swim.

Williams and I sat and talked for a while. She had wanted to decorate the bathroom with Ky'mariy's favorite pink Hello Kitty theme. Instead of enrolling her at the local public school, Williams had planned to drive the girl to and from her old charter school, where she was taking computer and piano lessons. Now those plans would have to wait.

She wondered whether detectives had made any arrests in the shooting. I told her they hadn't.

Williams was worried about how long she would be out of work and was applying for federal disability assistance. She had bought used crutches from a friend, found relatives to help around the house and was trying to arrange for rehabilitation at a nearby clinic. Doctors said it could be a year before she walked again.

I could see that Williams was tired. It was time for me to go. I realized we were still strangers, but it didn't matter. I cared what happened to her, and she knew it.

I leaned over the bed to give her a goodbye hug.

As I pulled back, she held on tight.

"You were like my guardian angel," she said before letting go. "Be careful out there."

--

molly.hennessy-fiske @latimes.com

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