Tia Howell was leaving work on Friday, May 31st, 2019 when another Virginia Beach city employee told her to hurry up and come back because there was a shooter outside the building.
Howell believes her co-worker saved her life. "It was reported that the shooter was in the same parking lot where I was parking in and he actually shot someone right where my car was parked," said Howell.
Howell is one of many survivors of the mass shooting at the Virginia Beach city government complex which left 12 dead and 4 wounded one year ago this Sunday.
Those survivors have spent the last year processing their trauma.
Howell, a financial administrator and young mom, says after she received the warning on that Friday, she ran to the first-floor mail room.
"I remember just sitting under that desk, just praying and crying. I even reached out to my parents to tell them that I loved them. I didn't know what was going to happen because we didn't get any information. It was just dark, black and they just kept telling us to be quiet," she said.
Virginia Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer was headed home after work that day when his assistant called with the news.
"She said 'there's an active shooter on campus'," he recalls. "Then I started getting phone calls, there was a fatality – there were more fatalities."
Beginning at 4 o'clock, the gunman, a disgruntled city employee, shot and killed 12 people before police shot him. He died later at a local hospital, leaving a host of unanswered questions as multiple investigations have found no motive.
One year later, victims and survivors still carry visible and invisible wounds, and that includes the mayor.
"After the dust settled, I had to get some counseling myself," he said. "You know, as a leader, you have to be strong at times but you also have to be human at times."
Howell also sought counseling, received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress, and had to leave her job.
"In the beginning I thought I could handle it. However, I found myself sitting at my desk crying most of the time," she said. "Oftentimes my co-workers would come into my office crying. We would go into each other's offices crying, and that lasted at least about a good 3-4 months of continual crying and just lamenting over the co-workers that we lost."
The gunman shot 11 city workers and a local contractor who had just arrived to apply for a permit.
The Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services has awarded Virginia Beach a $3 million grant to provide a community center for anyone affected by the shooting. It offers free counseling, support groups and financial and legal resources. The city is partnering with a local medical provider, Sentara Healthcare, to operate the center.
This month, the city painted a giant forget-me-not symbol at a local park, but it has had to cancel plans for one-year memorial events because of COVID-19 restrictions. Instead, it's offering an online remembrance ceremony on Sunday.
Mayor Dyer says he wants victims and survivors to know they are not forgotten.
"We will embrace these people in perpetuity. We will eventually come together," he said. "This was the worst day in the history of Virginia Beach and we intend to continue to show honor and respect for those affected."
Howell says she still experiences fear when she walks into public buildings. But as the one-year anniversary approaches, she's thankful that she can begin to speak about her trauma and recognizes that the Lord has brought her tremendous healing already.
"The Word is true – if you pray and seek His face--He really, really, really will help you and calm your fears," she said.
This story was originally published on May 28, 2020.