In the emergency training drill, the "victim" stumbled into the front lobby with a fake bullet wound to the chest, gasping for help. Reacting as though an active shooter were on site, River Road Park and Recreation District aquatics staff promptly escorted guests to safety.
It didn’t happen quite that way on April 12 … but close.
Jessica Braun, the designated building supervisor at Emerald Park in north Eugene, Ore., was speaking with a cashier at the front desk of the aquatics center when a young man burst in shouting, “My buddy’s been shot! My buddy’s been shot!”
This was not a drill.
After a brief moment of shock, the aquatics staff began mobilizing.
“Since we had the training, they all had somewhat of an idea of what to do,” Braun recalled. “But I was kind like ‘Oh, ok, we actually need to move!’”
Lifeguards are still reeling more than a month after two people were shot by a lone gunman, one fatally, at the 9-acre park that includes a community center with an indoor pool.
Thankfully, they were prepared for such an event.
In response to the disturbing string of shooting rampages that has gripped the nation in recent years, Aquatic/Fitness Director Jeff Fryer drafted an active-shooter emergency action plan to pinpoint exactly where patrons and staff could take cover, depending on their location at the time of an attack. Lockable, windowless areas include the spa mechanical room, storage closets, family change room, the staff change rooms, shower tank room and massage room, among other hideouts.
Last summer, he led more than 70 park and recreation staff members through a training session that challenged them to shepherd swimmers and gym patrons into these secure locations in less than 1 minute under the premise that a gunman was in the park. To amp up the intensity and realism of the nightmare scenario, a lifelike gunshot wound was applied to the employee playing the victim. Staffers took approximately 1 minute to secure shelter for all those participating in the exercise. Each employee had a defined role to play – not just lifeguards. (This unique approach to training was featured in AI's 2015 Best of Aquatics issue.)
On that day in April, at approximately 5:59 p.m., they’d implement the EAP for real.
Shots were fired at the skatepark located on the park property. Immediately, the recreation center and aquatic facility went into lockdown. The two facilities contained approximately 30 to 40 people at the time, some of them children from an after-school program.
Braun worked alongside another supervisor to clear the gym and exercise classes and ordered more than a dozen swimmers out of the pool. All were positioned in a hallway, away from all doors and windows. From here, it would only take 10 to 15 seconds to file them into several secure rooms, should the situation escalate.
Then a supervisor and two lifeguards headed outside, one of them bringing an emergency response bag.
“We knew someone out there needed help,” said John Pham, a lifeguard and swim instructor. “It did cross my mind that the shooter may still be around.”
They found two victims, both men in their twenties – one of them barely clinging to life. Pham helped control the bleeding and managed the airway of the more injured of the two until EMS arrived approximately 3 minutes later.
“The training told us what we needed to do, so we weren’t clueless,” said Pham, 21.
By this point, the suspect had retreated. Identified as 31-year-old Orlando Centeno, he was later found at a nearby residence, deceased with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, according to a police report.
Both victims were transported to the hospital, where 29-year-old John Mills was pronounced dead and Cain Barnett, 21, was treated for gunshot wounds.
Fryer was off duty when the shooting occurred but, upon hearing of the incident, came back to the park to find it swarming with sheriff’s deputies, police officers, state troopers and fire personnel.
In the days that followed, County Health Services offered counseling to parents and children who were impacted by the event, as well as to both the aquatics and recreation staffs.
Fryer made it a point to check in on several part-time staffers whom he saw less frequently, one of them a 17-year-old who had assisted the victims.
“For the most part, everyone seems to be doing well,” Fryer said.
Now that nerves have settled, River Road staff can recognize that they reacted quickly and effectively in a moment of crisis.
“We did everything we could. We did everything correct and as fast as possible,” Pham said.
Though tragic, the situation underscores the importance of developing a protocol for the unthinkable.
“I am incredibly thankful Jeff had the forethought to come up with this plan,” Braun said. “If he hadn’t, I would have been at a loss, not knowing what to do.”