Aurora Still Healing One Year After Workplace Shooting

William Poss Aurora Shooting
William Poss, owner of Luigi's Pizza and Fun Center in Aurora, still vividly remembers the shooting rampage at Henry Pratt Co. on Feb. 15, 2019. Hundreds of emergency responders turned his business, located near Pratt, into a staging area. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
William Poss Aurora Shooting
William Poss, owner of Luigi's Pizza and Fun Center in Aurora, still vividly remembers the shooting rampage at Henry Pratt Co. on Feb. 15, 2019. Hundreds of emergency responders turned his business, located near Pratt, into a staging area. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Aurora Still Healing One Year After Workplace Shooting

The flowers, teddy bears and white wooden crosses are gone from the entrance to the Henry Pratt Co. factory in west suburban Aurora.

There’s little reminder of the deadly rampage that took place there Feb. 15, 2019 when a disgruntled worker, who was set to be fired that day, fatally shot five co-workers and wounded five police officers who came to the scene.

While there may be no obvious signs of pain left from that day, it’s still there.

“We are concerned about the one-year anniversary coming up. That brings up a lot of feelings and stressors,” said Steve Jones, District 8 director of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), which represents about 70 workers at Pratt.

Jones said the anniversary is especially difficult for the union because two of the five Pratt employees who died were members of AIM Local 1202, including Russell Beyer, the union shop chairman. A third union member suffered injuries from being shot and is still recovering.

Jones gives credit to Pratt for working closely with the union to provide ongoing counseling to workers. But 12 months after the tragic event, more healing needs to take place, he said.

“I don’t know how that pain heals in that short period of time. We’re worried about the families and our workers,” Jones said. “We want to make sure we continue the healing and the transition.

“You can’t erase this, but you can at least help people understand it. How do you make sense out of chaos?” he added. “At least try to help them deal with how they feel about what happened.”

William Poss remembers the shooting like it was yesterday.

The owner of Luigi’s Pizza and Fun Center, Poss said he was in his office around 1:30 p.m. when an employee told him to go and look out at the parking lot .

“First I thought it was a practice,” Poss said. “I saw the ambulances lined up. I saw the fire trucks coming. I saw the SWAT team come. Then I saw the SWAT team put their vests on.”

He didn’t think much of the activity since he had seen drills there before.

“About a half hour later, they said, ‘Nobody leaves, nobody comes in. There’s an active shooter,’ ” Poss said. “Of course, we didn’t know where yet. They didn’t give us the details of where, how many, what? All we knew was we couldn’t leave, and no parents could come and pick up their kids.”

Poss didn’t know it at the time, but police were responding to shots fired at the Pratt plant just a hundred yards away. Because of its proximity to the scene, Luigi’s was closed for business and turned into a staging area for police.

“It was over 320 responders that came from all over the place,” Poss said. “Those people that came that day, they stopped what they did to help save people’s lives.”

As a lasting memorial to the responders, Poss plans to leave a huge banner hanging in his restaurant. It has hand-written notes of thanks to the hundreds of police, firefighters and paramedics who showed up that day.

Lydia Gomez Aurora shooting
Lydia Gomez was working at an ice cream shop a short distance from Henry Pratt Co. the day of the shooting. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Another person who was working near Pratt the day of the shooting, Lydia Gomez, said Aurora has returned to normal from the shock of that day, but she feels different.

Gomez was working at the La Michoacan Premium ice cream shop when dozens of police arrived and told her to lock her doors. She couldn’t leave for hours.

“I am going to remember it as a sad day,” Gomez said. “It’s something you don’t want to relive again. I hope things get better. I hope the families are in peace now.”

Aurora Historical Society items
Wooden crosses that were placed at a makeshift memorial for the shooting victims are part of an exhibit at the Aurora Historical Society to mark the anniversary of the tragedy. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

To encourage healing in the community, the Aurora Historical Society is opening an exhibit, February 15: One Year Later, featuring newspaper clippings, photos of the victims and some of the items mourners left outside the plant.

“We have the memorial crosses that were placed at the site. We have a lot of the materials that were left with the crosses — candles, stuffed animals, notes and cards,” said John Jaros, executive director of the society.

He said the Pratt tragedy punctured residents’ belief that mass shootings couldn’t happen in Aurora.

“A community kind of binds together when tragedy hits like this,” Jaros said. “But it will never be the same because it’s something that happened here, and we know it can happen here.”

Michael Puente covers Northwest Indiana for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.