Officer in Texas still recovering after 2018 school gunfire
SANTA FE, Texas (AP) — The softball skittered across the diamond as the 11-year-old shortstop charged forward and scooped it into her glove.
"All right, Riley!" John Barnes cheered, as his daughter pivoted and fired toward first, easily making the out.
"That's worth a new bat," a spectator joked.
The Houston Chronicle reports it was a hot, sunny Sunday. And under different circumstances, it would have been a typical suburban weekend.
But for Barnes and other victims of the Santa Fe school shooting on May 18, 2018, nothing seems normal anymore.
A year after the violence that claimed 10 lives and left 13 injured at Santa Fe High School, the Barnes family and others affected by the school massacre are straining to return to life as they once knew it. Signs of progress still carry reminders of the grim toll.
The school has reopened, but with new security guards and police officers, with metal detectors and other security measures.
Every day is a bitter reminder of lives lost and a spasm of evil that devastated thousands of people across Santa Fe and southeast Texas, a wound that no game of softball can heal.
For Barnes, the physical and emotional recovery continues slowly, step by step, after months of surgeries, doctor visits, untold hours of physical and occupational therapy and more recently, counseling appointments.
"I just wanted to live," Barnes said recently. "All of us were just trying to make it through it. We were all fighting for our lives."
Barnes, then a 49-year-old school police officer, arrived at Santa Fe High on May 18 hungry for eggs.
It was the last day of National Police Week and the school staff was planning to serve omelets.
About 7:30 a.m., he got a call about a noise disturbance, something about the sound of gunfire.
He started trotting down the hall with his superior, Gary Forward, close behind.
It wasn't clear, yet, that anything was amiss. Just a month before, there'd been a school lockdown because of fears of an active shooter.
"I'm waiting for something else, to say, 'OK, this is really going on,'" Barnes said, recalling the moment.
Then he smelled gunpowder and pulled out his pistol, only to watch, with confusion, as a line of students walked out of the hall in front of him.
"I don't hear anything. These kids obviously didn't hear anything," he remembers thinking.
Moments later, he heard two pops, and saw two of the school's substitute teachers stumble and fall to the ground.
Then four pieces of buckshot tore through his right forearm, shredding his brachial artery, shattering his elbow and leaving a golf ball-sized hole in his inner forearm.
Blood sprayed out as if from a garden hose.
"I had never seen blood loss like that before," Forward said.
He pulled a tourniquet off his duty belt and wrapped it around Barnes' arm, aware the gunman — or gunmen — could turn the corner and shoot them again.
Forward opened the door to a nearby dance room and Barnes pitched inside.
Barnes tried to slow his breathing. Tried to calm his pounding heart, willing the blood flowing out of him to slow down.
'Something was wrong with my brain'
Thirty-three days later, as overcast skies and the promise of rain loomed outside, Barnes sat in his hospital room.
He'd spent weeks at the University of Texas Medical Branch and begun rehabilitation at TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital. He was finally ready to go home.
He was 30 pounds lighter, wearing a checkered blue shirt, his ubiquitous shorts and sneakers, and an Astros cap to ward off any rain from the gathering clouds above. A complex sling and pillow supported his arm. A metal brace protruded from his forearm and upper elbow, immobilizing the joint. He tired at the drop of a hat. And his emotions see-sawed between cheerful chatter and tears.
Words came slowly and sometimes — no matter how much he searched his brain — not at all.
The upheaval and the uncertainty were terrifying.
"I knew something was wrong with my brain," he recalled. "During all of this, doctors couldn't tell if it would come back."
Nearly a year later, the details of that month are still fuzzy. Barnes doesn't remember anything from the first eight days he spent in the hospital.
He walked out the sliding doors that Wednesday morning in June, and came up short as he saw the line of police cars from Galveston County, Santa Fe Independent School District and the Houston Police Department waiting for him, lights flashing, ready to escort him home.
"I was not expecting that," he said. "It was like — with just about everything with this thing — overwhelming emotion."
In League City, at the entrance to the neighborhood where he lives, a firetruck hoisted an American flag high in his honor, and neighbors clapped and cheered as the convoy pulled into view.
Months later, he still chokes up thinking about that moment — and the other moments that have come since.
It felt gratifying but also undeserved.
"Gary and all the rest of those guys that dragged me out of there, all of them displayed that same courage," he said. "I just happened to be the guy that got shot."
It was supposed to be a quiet job.
Barnes joined the Santa Fe school district in January 2018, just a few months before the shooting, after a 23-year career with the Houston Police Department. With HPD, he had worked patrol on the city's south side, then for nine years as one of the department's juvenile sex crimes investigators.
He already had a retirement pension from his two decades with HPD, so he figured he could afford to take a lower-paying job at another department. It had other perks — it was closer to home and would allow him to spend more time with his wife, Ashley, and their two kids, Riley and Luke, now 15.
But instead of walking the halls of Santa Fe High, here he was, bleeding out in the dance room.
Within minutes, several officers grabbed him by his gun belt and dragged him outside. EMTs loaded him into an ambulance and began pumping blood into a vein in his shoulder. They then transferred him to a helicopter and sent him to UTMB. His heart stopped briefly en route.
By the time they arrived at UTMB, the scope of the trauma was clear: Barnes had "exsanguinated," meaning he'd lost nearly all the blood in his body. He was suffering from massive shock, and blood loss was depriving many of his internal organs of oxygen, causing damage to his kidneys, liver and lungs.
"I was not sure he was going to make it," recalled Dr. Bill Mileski, chief of trauma services.
Doctors had two objectives: First, save his life. Second, try to save his arm.
Even if he survived, the specter of brain damage loomed.
At Roy J. Wollam Elementary School, where she worked as an assistant principal, Ashley Barnes was dismissing kids early because of the shooting when Santa Fe ISD police officer Cibby Moore arrived.
"You need to come with me," Moore told her.
"As soon as she got me, I knew it was John," Ashley said. "I just needed her to tell me he wasn't dead."
At a rehab appointment in July, Barnes lay grimacing on a wide, low-slung table as a physical therapist stretched his elbow.
In some ways, things seemed like they were getting back to normal.
His signature beard was growing back. The metal brace doctors drilled into his arm after the shooting was gone, and his range of motion had improved.
But he had almost no grip strength and still needed to use his left hand to do almost everything. He couldn't touch his thumb to his ring finger, and didn't have the strength to bring his hand to his face.
"I feel like a kid every time I try to sign my name," he said at the appointment, one of the dozens of thrice-weekly sessions he has attended at TIRR and a UTMB facility over the last year.
He didn't expect his arm would ever be as strong as it was before the shooting, but he worried whether he'd ever be able to hold a fork or turn a door knob.
"I want to do as much as you think I can handle," he told an occupational therapist.
He was struggling with more than physical pain. When he talked about the shooting, or recalled it in his mind, he often came to tears.
In an effort to try to make sense of the shooting, he began revisiting the strange confluence of events that nearly claimed his life, and spared it.
He met with other survivors. Relatives of the dead. The flight crews that ferried him to the hospital; the doctors and nurses who saved his life. He returned to the school, to see where it happened — all part of an effort to process what happened.
He wanted to know everything they knew; to tell them, if they wanted, his experiences. And even though he believes he did everything he could, to try to quell the self-doubt that plagues him when he thinks about the shooting.
"I guess instinctively I knew that would help me," he said. "And it's helped me a lot. Talking about it helps me a great deal."
On a hot Sunday in late July, he met with Flo Rice — one of the substitute teachers he saw shot — and her husband, Scot.
"They had the right to hear what happened," he said. "I wanted to make sure they were OK with my actions."
They sat on the brown leather couch in Barnes' living room, as Riley puttered in the kitchen, making a craft project with glue and glitter.
Barnes wore a glove on his right hand, to reduce swelling. His scars had healed somewhat, and he played with a small stress ball, trying to restore strength to his weakened right hand.
Flo walked slowly, with care, using a walker to move around; she'd taken buckshot in both hips. That day, she wore jeans and black sneakers and a green T-shirt adorned with the school's mascot, an Indian war chief, and the phrase: "Santa Fe Strong."
As Barnes listened, she shared what she remembered: two bangs, so loud they sounded like bombs.
"I've heard gunshots before," she later recalled. "But I never knew what it sounded like inside a building."
The second blast hit her in her hips, sending her falling to the ground and breaking her leg. Somehow, she pulled herself through the school's rear exit doors and called Scot.
"I've been shot," she said. "I'm in the parking lot."
Rice jumped into his Mustang and hit the gas. Another officer carried her to Rice's car and he rushed her to UTMB Victory Lakes.
Flo said she was relieved to see Barnes that day, to know he was recovering and to share what happened with someone else who'd been in the same situation.
"I really don't have anyone else to relate to or talk about it to," she said, recently. "Because you just can't do that with the kids who were injured."
For Barnes, the meeting was just as cathartic.
He'd worried that people may have blamed him for not doing enough, or that they might compare him to the police officers who failed to intervene in a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, just months before.
"It would have been very easy for people to assume we didn't do everything we could," he said. "That would have been an easy path to go down."
In September, he underwent surgery again, this time in San Antonio. A doctor opened up his elbow, compressing the bone fragments in the hope they will fuse back together. The surgery required Barnes to have another fixator attached to his elbow, and long hours of therapy at home with a machine to stretch his arm.
With time, he gained strength. Rehab helped. He now has almost a full range of motion, but he still can only hold a few pounds with his right hand.
On Oct. 10, he and his wife went to Craft 96 Draught House+Kitchen, a bar in League City.
He ordered a pretzel and tore off a small chunk, then wedged it between his thumb and forefinger and tried to raise it to his mouth. He couldn't quite get the hand all the way.
He braced his right arm with his left and pushed the chunk of bread to his lips, then took a triumphant bite, tears of happy relief streaming down his cheeks.
It was the first time he'd been able to feed himself with his right hand.
"That's when I knew I'd be all right," he said.
In December, though, he developed a staph infection in his arm. In August, he'll have to have another surgery to remove the plate holding his elbow together to try to fight the infection.
Barnes went back to the school with Ashley, Luke and Riley last summer, just before the start of the 2019 school year.
There were still holes in the wall, divots marring the spots where the buckshot scarred cinder block walls.
Now, the art rooms have been turned into storage closets. The room he crawled into after getting shot has been converted into a counseling room.
It was a difficult day, Ashley said, but after reading and hearing so much about the shooting, they needed to see it for themselves. She couldn't bring herself to enter the art rooms, where the bulk of the blood was spilled. Barnes went inside.
"I wanted to see how it happened," he said. "I didn't understand how I got hit."
Things are different now at the school, said Forward, the officer who saved Barnes' life.
The district has added metal detectors, cameras and alarms, to try to "harden" the campus.
Like Barnes, he often chokes up while recalling the shooting. He can't stop thinking about the 10 who died, the teens and adults he wishes he could have saved.
"It's a tough loss. That was a tough thing to swallow, that day," he said. "And every day since."
Ashley started a new job in January, teaching English at Clear Creek ISD, where both her children are students.
With John's injuries, she needed to be closer to home. And while she loved working at Santa Fe ISD, every day brought some fresh reminder of May 18. Sometimes it was a question from parents, or a look from a colleague.
"It's still kind of difficult to be reminded," she said. "I don't know if that's ever going to go away. And I think that's probably true for a lot of people."
At her new school, she looks for red flags, makes sure students aren't getting bullied and tries to ensure that they feel protected and cared for every day.
"If they can feel someone has their back, maybe that could spark something," she said. "Maybe if I can stop someone from reaching that breaking point, I can protect Riley, and for that matter, Luke."
On a recent Friday morning, Barnes walked into UTMB Victory Lakes.
The air was damp, the sky overcast. His bushy beard was back and he wore a T-shirt that said "honor the fallen,'" adorned with a weeping angel. As always, he wore the compression sleeve on his right arm.
In the rehab gym, three other patients walked on treadmills or used exercise bikes. He sat at an exercise wheel first, using hand pedals to warm up his arm and shoulder.
Diane Ugartechea, his occupational therapist, walked him through the session. She has a soft voice and a quiet smile, but she is a taskmaster when Barnes slacks off.
"They call her the bone crusher," he joked.
She hands him a 4-pound bar, which he works like a seated bench press — one of the myriad exercises he will complete that morning.
"Slowly," she admonishes, watching as he works through the 10 reps.
"He's good about keeping up with the reps," she said. "But his form is the main thing, making sure he doesn't cheat."
For a long time, Barnes felt hesitant about speaking out about the shooting or his experiences.
In recent months, however, he has become more vocal — particularly after federal prosecutors initially said they would not charge the accused gunman in federal court. Survivors and relatives of the slain were furious, because the decision eliminated the chance for a longer sentence.
In March, days before survivors were planning to hold a press conference urging prosecutors to change course, officials with the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Texas announced they would charge the accused gunman — a student at Santa Fe High School at the time of the shooting — with two federal crimes.
"It kind of forced my hand to get more involved," he said. "I knew if myself and others didn't get involved, that wouldn't happen."
Ashley tries to keep perspective about the last year. For all the trauma, John's still alive.
"It's up to us to find the good, and not focus on the negative," she said. "God is there to help us to do that."
Recently, John decided to see a psychologist.
"I still get emotional at some points, but I'm not — I don't have to stop and sit there and cry for three minutes before I can talk about it," he said. "It's ok to struggle with all this. Everybody does. What's important isn't that you have the struggle, it's that you keep moving forward."
At the recent softball game at Bay Area Park, that was all in the background, at least temporarily.
John and Ashley watched as Riley stepped up to the plate. They joked with other parents, scoffing at calls they didn't like.
In the dugout, Riley's teammates belted out fight songs.
They are settling into a new routine. Summer is on its way. They have their family, their friends and sunny days of softball.
"C'mon Rue!" John yelled, as his daughter stepped up to bat.
The pitcher wound up, then uncoiled, sending the ball flying.
At home plate, Riley crouched, and swung.
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com
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