One year after the Virginia Beach mass shooting, survivors still grapple with the aftermath

Virginia Beach Mass Shooting

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — Tom Colson saw the gunman three times on the third floor of Building 2 at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center on May 31, 2019. 

The first time, he did not know he was looking at the shooter. 

The second and third times, he started to figure it out. 

Colson remains a public utilities account clerk for the City of Virginia Beach. He is one of those who remain scarred by the mass shooting — which left 12 dead plus the shooter and injured several others — but Colson also remains in his job. But that’s not easy, he says. 

Colson’s life was spared, he believes, because of pleasantries with the gunman from time to time before the rampage. The shooter — a city engineer who submitted his resignation earlier that day whose name is not being used by WAVY — would often brush his teeth in the bathroom around 2 p.m., and Colson would see him in there. They only carried on brief conversations, but they were always polite.

“I am sure he remembered me in a positive way … and it was a reason I wasn’t shot,” Colson told 10 On Your Side.

One year later, Colson tells us of nightmares he still has from that dreadful day, 

“Most of them with him [the shooter] walking around with a gun, and unfortunately some of the nightmares, I don’t make it out. And some of them I do,” he said, adding he would wake up in a cold sweat.

The police radio traffic 10 On Your Side found on Broadcastify from May 31, 2019 is eerie: “What is the last known location?” someone asks.

The response: “Where he was shooting through the door into the hallway.” 

RELATED: Remembering the day: Tragedy in Virginia Beach

In the radio traffic, you can hear how Virginia Beach Police are trying to isolate the shooter.

“Advisory, send some rescue teams to get the casualties out,” another person says over the radio. 

This was all unfolding where Colson worked. 

The radio traffic continues: “We need access keys, the doors are locked. We need access keys.” The police not having access keys was a major issue in police response that has been noted in post-shooting reports.

Colson was there in the horror.

“Someone came in and said ‘Everybody off the phone. There’s an active shooter. Get to my office,’” Colson recalled. 

One year later, 10 On Your Side returned to Building 2 with Colson. He still remembers much of the shooting.

“My cubical was where the first window is back directly down from there,” Colson said, pointing to a third-floor window of Building 2.

Colson had already seen the shooter, but like others, he didn’t know he was the shooter until he eventually saw the gun.

“His eyes were straight ahead. Even when my coworker was saying ‘Stop, put the gun down,’ he didn’t even turn around. He just kept walking… We got secured in an office. That’s when I heard a gunshot that took one of my friend’s lives,” he said.

Colson’s friend was Ryan Keith Cox, a man hailed as a hero for helping people find safety during the shooting.

For Building 2 workers, it has been a year of leaning on each other.

“We leaned on each other a lot. We are always checking in ‘Hey, are you OK? How are you doing?’” he said.

One year later, Colson finds himself on edge in public. “I had a severe anxiety attack.” 

Colson had a severe anxiety attack Dec. 31 at Pembroke Mall. There was a children’s’ New Year’s Eve party, and it caused a flashback. 

“When the little balloons came down, the children started stepping on the balloons… It sounded like gunshots to me, and then somebody behind me had a party popper… It sounded exactly like the weapon that was used… I had a pretty bad anxiety attack, and I had to get my daughter and leave… My instinct was ‘Oh my gosh it’s happening again,’” he said. 

Colson is a veteran and gets most of his health care counseling at the local VA hospital.

“I’ve been seeing a counselor there, and I am branching out seeing a therapist out in town,” he said. 

Colson and his therapist talk about the ripple effect caused by the mass shooting, like a stone in the water.

“I think of the ripple effect of everyone who has been involved. People we lost. People who survived. Their friends, their families, their loved ones. We have contact with them… That one day changed the course of everything,” he said.

One year later, Colson faces flashback images of the killer’s face.

Like many city employees, Colson still carries the weight of his experience with him. One year later, things are still not OK.

Instead, it’s what Colson calls “the new normal.” 

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