Portrait by Kelly Bjork
It was karaoke night at the Twilight Exit, and Steve drove to the bar alone. He lived nearby, and his wife of a couple years was vacationing in China. Steve was scheduled to begin a new job the next morning, after having been unemployed a stretch. He’d be joining the kitchen staff at a swanky restaurant downtown, doing cold-food preparation. The plan was to sing a few songs and get home early. “I went every Sunday. The first song I ever tried was “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and after that I was hooked,” said Steve, a normal-mannered guy with red hair, an average build, a trim goatee, and a straw fedora. I’ve heard him singing many times. He enunciates crisply and engages a faint vibrato, which gives his stage presence a formal effect. “I was probably going to start with Frank Sinatra’s ‘Fly Me to the Moon.’ That’s always my warm-up song. Karaoke Steve liked that it was a mellow way to get the evening started,” he said.
Steve traveled to the Twilight by scooter, and when he turned into the alleyway alongside the building’s main entrance, he noticed his buddy Greg the bouncer outside, standing before the doorway. Greg was talking with someone, but Steve couldn’t hear what they were saying through his helmet. “Greg had this security guard stance. I could tell by the look on his face things weren’t right,” Steve said. He figured the other guy might’ve been too drunk to be allowed inside, or maybe he was getting kicked out for being obnoxious. “I didn’t know the severity of what was going on,” he said. In an attempt to lighten the mood, Steve honked his scooter’s horn. It had a dorky squeak and made people laugh, he said. He saw Greg waving him away, so he continued past and stopped a little farther up the alley. “The second I got the scooter parked and turned off, I heard a loud bang,” said Steve.
In a separate interview, Greg described the moment of impact. “It only lasted a second, but it was really hot. It was like a burning. But there was also a crushing feeling, strangely enough. Like something was crushing my leg. I guess that’s the best way to describe it. It’s just an incredible impact. Like getting hit in a very central location by a very tiny car,” he said. Seconds later, James yanked Greg to the ground and stepped over his body. “Then he went inside, and I started hearing gunshots. It was horrifying. I thought he was shooting people. Columbine popped into my head. I remember thinking, ‘Yeah, OK. This is happening. This is my fucking life right now.’ I couldn’t believe I was involved. I was just blown away,” Greg said. Right after he’d fallen, “I’d pulled my pants down. I knew I had to figure out if there was an exit wound, so I felt my ass. I didn’t feel anything.1 My hands were already a little bloody. I looked to see where the bullet actually went in. There was a lot of numbness at that point. I saw the hole. It seems like the very moment I noticed where the hole was, the blood started bursting out of it. It was like a water fountain. I tried to put pressure on it with my hand. It’s kind of an awkward spot. It’s right where your leg bends at the upper thigh,” said Greg.
Let’s back up a bit and return to Steve in the moments he’d been parking his scooter. When the gunshot sounded, “instantly, I heard Greg. The tone in his voice was scary to me. He said, ‘I’ve been shot. Help, help. Oh my god, help.’ It was blood curdling, his screaming. He was trying to warn the people inside. I threw down my helmet. I left everything sitting there. My keys were still in the ignition. I ran as fast as I could to Greg. I was running so fast. It was like I wasn’t even touching the ground. Greg was slumped down in the doorway when I got to him. Just screaming bloody murder,” said Steve.
“I think Steve asked me what happened. I was like, ‘That fucking asshole shot me,’” said Greg.
“At that point I could see the people running out the door in all directions,” said Steve. As he described the scene to a detective, “a girl came down the alley. I gave her my phone. I’d been trying to get through to 911 but was put on hold. There’s a dumpster adjacent to the door. I grabbed the girl and told her to hide behind it, just in case the guy happened to come back out,” he said. (I was the girl. I know Steve handed me his phone and gave me precise directions for the operator, and I remember being behind the dumpster. In between, there are empty patches. Most everything that was happening had become very strange to me. Even my walking. It was more like I was pulling myself along.)
Photo Credit: Seattle Police Department
From his position in the alley, Steve could hear the shooter inside the bar. “He sounded angry. You could tell the difference between his voice and the other people screaming. There was a gunshot. Maybe there was one more after that. I mean, I’m not sure. There was a lot happening,” he said. “I told Greg that we had to get him out of the door because the guy was probably gonna come back out the way he went in,” he said. Lexi joined Steve soon after, and as he told the detective, “me and a female picked up Greg from the armpits and drug him by the dumpster.” Greg weighed about 250 pounds at the time. “I was struggling, but my adrenaline was going,” Steve said to me. “I took off my jacket, it was either for Greg to use as a pillow, or it was because I was hot because my heart was pumping.”
Photo Credit: Seattle Police Department
The corner provided some cover for Steve to assess Greg’s bullet hole. When he observed its placement, Steve’s brain flashed him a scene from the war-drama miniseries Band of Brothers. “One of the officers accidentally shoots himself in the leg, and then he dies very quickly,” he said. “It was basically the same spot as Greg’s wound. I knew it’d hit the artery,” Greg said. He’d had some First Aid and CPR training too. “The flow of the blood was very heavy, and the color was a bright red.”
“We tried to wrap somebody’s jacket to make a tourniquet but that didn’t work because of the location of the bullet hole,” said Greg. “Steve asked if it was OK to put his finger in my leg. He said it was the only way he knew to stop the bleeding, and I was like, ‘Dude, yeah. Just do whatever the fuck.’”
“I put my finger in the hole and applied pressure,” said Steve. “It was my index finger,” he said.
“He had me plugged,” said Greg.
“It felt like it was something normal for me to have done,” Steve said to me. His father was firefighter/paramedic and SWAT medic, Steve says, and he used to stay with him during the summers and other school breaks. “My dad always had a scanner going in his garage, and he carried a portable one in his car,” said Steve. “Anytime we heard of something going down, we would go. It didn’t matter if it was day or night. He took all four of us at once. I have two brothers and a stepbrother. We were nicknamed the Siren Chasers,” said Steve. Once they’d arrived, “my dad would usually help out with crowd control, and we’d hang back and watch him and the others working. These were some happy memories that I really cherish. We saw some amazing house fires.”
Steve and I return to Greg, as he lay on the pavement. “I was telling him over and over he was gonna be fine,” said Steve. “Greg kept saying he was getting sleepy and he was getting cold, so I was trying to keep him talking. I knew that his blood loss was killing him.”
“The bullet had completely severed a nerve cluster,” said Greg. “I was feeling a weird pain like I’d never experienced. Not just the severity but the sensations. The pain would be in places I wasn’t expecting. That made it almost worse, because I couldn’t brace myself,” he said. “I was pretty much sure I was gonna die. Steve wanted me to keep talking to him, so he’d know I was staying awake. It was hard to come up with stuff to talk about. You can’t really think about anything when you’re laying there bleeding to death, and you don’t want to talk about that. You know, it’s a little awkward. So you’re just making some small talk or whatever. I think I was saying, ‘This sucks.’ What else are you gonna say, really,” said Greg.
“At one point I joked because I had Greg’s balls in my hand,” said Steve. “I was trying to say something funny to keep him talking. I said something like, ‘Well, this is the first time I’ve ever held your nuts.’ It made him laugh,” Steve said.
“It was a ridiculous situation,” said Greg, then continued. “I might’ve been partially in shock, but I felt super cognizant of what was going on around me. I was trying to keep as much blood as I could. I knew my chances were very slim, and the only thing I was capable of doing at the time was to stay in control of my emotions. I’d feel an urge to panic welling up. I’d think, like, ‘Am I ever gonna play drums again?’ Then my brain would say, ‘Shut up, don’t think about it. Don’t worry about that right now. Stay calm.’ There was kind of a little war inside my head,” said Greg. Meanwhile, as Lexi and Steve crouched above Greg’s body, I stood over, shining the light from a cell phone onto the wound. “From there we just waiting. It seemed like forever. I could hear the sirens but they seemed so far away,” said Greg.
“I heard the cops forming a team in the alley as they approached the door,” said Steve. “I heard them yell to drop the weapon and then a barrage of bullets being fired. I heard the shots exchanged and then silence. After that, it was over. I heard them saying he was down.”
“How did you feel when you realized the shooter had been killed?” I said.
“I didn’t really care,” said Steve.
Greg said Steve shouted out to the cops. “He was saying, ‘I got a victim here. I got a gunshot victim here.’” In the moments following, one policeman stood out to Greg. “I will never forget the look on his face when he saw me, because it did not look good. He looked pretty grim. He looked like he’d seen this kind of thing before, and he knew what was gonna happen. That was probably one of the most scariest parts for me, just watching his whole reaction,” said Greg. As Steve remembers, an officer told him to continue applying pressure until the paramedics arrived, “and then they put Greg on a stretcher and away they went,” said Steve.
“I definitely was delirious by the time the medics got me in the ambulance,” said Greg. “They were undressing me as they wheeled me in. They told me a team was waiting to descend on me when I got to the hospital. They asked me to move my toe, so they could let me know how I was doing. I realized I’d lost control and feeling in my leg. It was different than what I’d felt when I was outside. It was like my leg wasn’t there. I couldn’t move my toe. It was dead. That’s when I felt some serious fear creeping in.”
I’ll finish Greg’s story later, but for now, let’s return to Steve. Outside the bar, as officials processed the scene, Steve joined the other witnesses gathered along the sidewalk. “I was shock. It was like a dream, like nothing was real. I remember looking at my hands as they were covered in blood. There was blood all the way to my elbows. Christie pulled me down to a mud puddle and helped me wash some of it off. Then a cop came over and handed me some wipes for the rest of it,” said Steve. Soon after, a public bus appeared in the gloom. It’d been summoned to transport Steve and the other witnesses to the police station. The overhead lights were bright, and once Steve had boarded, he noticed the state of his pants. “They were completely soaked, from my socks to my belly button. I tried using the wipes to get the blood off. That’s when I finally broke down. Karaoke Steve came over and rubbed my back while I sobbed. My pants, underwear, socks, shoes—they were soaked all the way through to my skin. I kept trying to wipe all the blood off.” (Later that night, as Steve changed into a clean outfit, “I put all the soiled clothing in a bag and chucked it into a dumpster,” he said.)
Hours later, after he’d given a statement at the police station, Steve visited a different bar and had several drinks while he retold his story to friends. Then he headed home. “My room seemed very quiet. I tried to make sense of what had just happened. I laid in bed and stared at the ceiling for hours,” he said. Days went by, but the heavy feelings wouldn’t go away. “My drinking got worse and worse throughout the months after the shooting. I drank and did drugs and partied and whatever. It got so bad there were a few times I had to go to the Harborview psych unit. I’d black out and wake up in restraints. I couldn’t keep a job when I was ending up at the hospital all the time. I woke up in the ICU once. I’d overdosed on some Klonopin, and I’d aspirated. Fluid in the lungs. I don’t know if I was trying to kill myself. I ended up being admitted for inpatient detox, and from there I went to a mental-health ward and got treatment for chemical dependency. I’ve definitely stopped drinking after that, but I’ve had some ups and downs.2 I kept getting nightmares and flashbacks. I wouldn’t sleep for very long. It was like a surge of lightning would hit me, and I’d wake up relaying the gunshot in my head. I had to be properly medicated and go under doctor’s watch and do therapy. To this day, I’m still pretty affected,” he said. Even still, “the event was just a very small scheme of what I’d experienced in my lifetime. When I was 13, my dad took his own life. Seeing him at the funeral was the scariest thing I’ve ever been through.”
Over time, “I’ve come to think of that nook where me and Greg spent our time together as a happy place. Greg’s still alive. If we hadn’t been at that little corner, he might not be,” said Steve. On his journey to recovery, he got out of the restaurant industry. “It was too full of drugs and alcohol. I’d worked in a kitchen where the chef had a big plate of cocaine in the fridge that he would just chop up and serve throughout his shift, and that’s just one example,” said Steve. “I got a job delivering produce, and I did that a couple years. I had more free time since I wasn’t going out as often, and I figured it was time to start doing something with my life. I kind of grew up a little bit. I started becoming responsible.”
Steve eventually went back to school and became an EMT. He’s had the job a couple years now. When I ask if the Twilight shooting informed his decision, he says he would’ve chosen the career regardless. “It’s been my only dream since I can remember,” he says.3 So far, he’s helped just about everyone: car-wreck victims; mentally-ill people; unhealthy babies; “slip-and-falls” (most often, nursing-home patients who forgot their walker); “lots and lots of inebriated alcoholics”; and countless victims of drug overdoses, “usually it’s heroin or meth, or a combination of the two.” Steve describes witnessing the immediate effects of Narcan, a powerful antidote for opiate users as they’re experiencing heart failure. “When they wake up, they get angry. Their high has been taken away. They usually try to fight,” he says. “They don’t realize they were just dead.”
1 The bullet was lodged in Greg’s butt cheek. He’s since had it removed, but for several months after the shooting, the doctors left it where it was. “It was because of the location, I guess. There were a lot of nerve endings and nerve clusters surrounding the bullet. They were worried if they tried to remove it right away they would end up damaging a nerve,” said Greg. He let me feel it once. “You kind of had to press to find it,” he told me, guiding my hand, until suddenly, there it was. Like a marble. I asked if hurt. “When I sit on it wrong, it does,” he said.
2 These factors weighted a different discussion. “Am I mentally capable enough to own a gun? The manly side of my personality wants a gun, but then I think about: what if my mind goes, what if I drink, what if I get so drunk, and I have a gun,” said Steve. “No. It’s not for me.”
3 It’s worth noting that Steve’s brothers explored similar fields. One is a firefighter, another a trauma nurse, another a police-car mechanic.