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Format: 04/19/2014
Format: 04/19/2014


Bridgeville Area News: Survivors of gym carnage relive the terror

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

Julia Gazzam lay on the floor in the darkened fitness center, gunshots ringing in her ears and gunpowder stinging her nostrils, waiting for a bullet to find her.

She lifted her head and looked at the gunman, clad in black workout clothes, later identified by police as George Sodini. He stood in front of her, and bodies lay between them.

"I was thinking, 'This is it. This man is going to kill me,' " said Gazzam, 19, of Bon Air. She, her mother Joann, and the stranger she hugged to her were among a few people trapped inside the LA Fitness center aerobics room Tuesday night who emerged uninjured.

The 8 p.m. Latin Impact aerobics dance class began about 10 minutes earlier in the Collier fitness center. It was Jordan Solomon's first time there. As the workout got under way, the Mt. Lebanon High School freshman saw Sodini come through the door and walk to a back corner of the room. He stood five or six feet from Joann Gazzam.

"He had a sweatband on like he was ready to work out," said Solomon, 14.

Solomon saw him place a duffel bag on the floor and shuffle through it.

Then the lights went out.

"I've never been in that class, so I thought it was part of the dance routine," Solomon said.

'Shooting and shooting'

In the darkness, the gunman pulled out a 9 mm pistol.

One of the first shots smashed into the mirror in front of Julia Gazzam. Solomon turned and saw a silhouette take aim at the front of the classroom. The gunman fired again.

Solomon joined a crowd sprinting from the room. She ran through the main lobby and screamed, "Get out of here! Shooting!" Gazzam and the girl beside her dropped to the ground and grabbed each other. Her mother jumped behind a stack of equipment used for step-aerobics.

"He just kept shooting and shooting," Julia Gazzam said.

It seemed random. Elizabeth Gannon, 49, of Green Tree, and Heidi Overmier, 46, of Carnegie, died in the room. Jody Billingsley, 37, of Mt. Lebanon died later.

One of the bullets pierced dance instructor Mary Primis' left arm. Another hit her shoulder blade and shattered. The fragments lodged in her chest and her lung.

Had Sodini walked in at the beginning of the class, he would have heard Primis, 26, tell everyone in the room about the baby she and her husband just learned she was carrying.

Primis collapsed. As she lay in a pool of blood, she held her breath and listened to what she thought was the gunman moving through the room.

"She wanted him to think she was dead," Primis' husband, Alex, said Wednesday at Allegheny General Hospital, where his wife was recovering in the trauma intensive care unit.

Eight other women — the target of Sodini's rage and frustration, according to his blog — were shot.

The Gazzams say he never moved from his place at the back of the room. They described his face as "serene."

"He looked like he had a job to do, and he was focused," Joann Gazzam said.

The shooting continued, as Sodini emptied what police said was a 30-round clip, replaced it and began firing again. It seemed to last longer than a minute.

When it got quiet

Then came a lull.

Joann and Julia Gazzam picked up their heads and looked for each other. They made eye contact, Joann from behind the equipment pile and Julia from under a punching bag suspended from the ceiling.

"I put my fingers to my lips and told her to be quiet and to keep her head down," Joann Gazzam said.

"There was no way I was going to make a sound," Julia Gazzam said. "The girl I was hanging on to, I told her to be quiet."

She made shushing sounds and clasped her hand over the girl's mouth. They waited.

"I saw him sit down," she said.

He seemed to be organizing the things strewn around him, arranging them to look the way he thought they should.

He looked up, lifted a gun to his head, fired and slumped over.

"I said, 'He's dead.' But I wasn't sure, so we laid there for a few minutes," Julia Gazzam said. "Then we all ran."

As they fled, they saw the bodies. There were at least three of them, the Gazzams said.

Feeling helpless

Paramedics and police began to arrive. An ambulance rushed Jody Billingsley to the emergency room of St. Clair Hospital in Mt. Lebanon, where she died 45 minutes after being shot.

Alex Primis rushed to LA Fitness. A woman from his wife's dance class called him after she fled, telling him his wife was shot.

"It was the scariest thing I ever experienced," he said. "I just couldn't believe it."

He arrived at the gym, but paramedics had taken his wife to the hospital. He drove to Allegheny General, eight miles away, knowing nothing about her injuries, or if she was alive.

The couple married six years ago and live in Moon. Mary Primis teaches fitness classes at other area gyms and works as a nurse at Sewickley Valley Hospital, her husband said. The pregnancy, 10 weeks along, is their first.

"You feel helpless," he said. "There's nothing I could have done."

In the emergency room, Primis found his wife covered in blood but awake and coherent. She told her husband she did not know the gunman.

Doctors at Allegheny General were conducting scan tests yesterday to assess Primis' condition and rule out further damage. The bullet fragments lodged within her could make her susceptible to complications such as infections or bleeding, said Dr. Aurelio Rodriguez, director of trauma surgery.

The baby was unharmed, he said.

"She should be OK," Rodriguez said, adding that an obstetrics doctor evaluated the baby. "She was very lucky. It could have been lethal."

To read more, visit the Bridgeville Area News web site.


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