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Format: 04/23/2014
Format: 04/23/2014


The Almanac: Faith and flowers help ease the pain of killings

Monday, August 17th, 2009

By Terri T. Johnson

The Almanac

As restoration crews worked inside LA Fitness last week clearing away reminders of the mass shooting Aug. 4 in which three women died and nine others were wounded, outside a makeshift memorial continues to grow.
Those whose lives were touched in any way by the tragedy, left flowers, stuffed animals, poems, angel statues, balloons and burning candles.

Flowers tributes ranged from a single rose, to a massive bouquet whose scent floated on the hot afternoon air.

Shooter George Sodini, 48, of Scott Township, opened fire in an aerobic room in the Collier Township fitness center shortly before 8:15 p.m. Police counted at least 36 bullets.




The shooting stopped when he committed suicide.
Sue Baron of Mars works at a nearby optical shop in the Great Southern Shopping Center, but left before the shooting began. At home she turned on the television and saw the news. That's when her family began to call.

Two days later, she and her 6-year-old daughter, Veronica, left a poem and some flowers outside the center. Sue Baron said she did not know any of the victims personally, but "knew of the ladies."

She did, however, recognize Sodini's face when it flashed on the news.

"He stopped in the shop," Baron said. "He asked how much an eye exam cost. I guess he was scoping out the place. I'll never forget that face."

Police said Sodini, a member of the club, planned the shooting for up to nine months. He entered the room during the dance class with four weapons, turned out the lights and started randomly firing. A personal blog detailed his hatred of women. Police can find no connection between Sodini and any of the women.

Sheryl Branovan of Collier Township returned to the center to take a few pictures and to reflect on the tragic event. She is a member, but was not at the club the night of the shooting. Her friend, Marcie Hankey, was in the class, Branovan said. Hankey escaped without injury.

"She was by the yoga mats," Branovan said of Hankey. "As soon as the shooting started, she ran under the mats and pulled them down on herself."

After the shooting ended, Branovan said her friend, who works at West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh, ran out, but returned to help the injured.

Branovan, who has been a member since the club opened a year ago, is willing to return.

"The guy's gone. He's not out there lingering," she said.

Peter Mastracci loves his hometown of Collier Township. He knows one of the injured and several club members who were inside during the shooting.

"I'm still in shock," Mastracci said after visiting the site. He said that aside from the personal tragedy, he is concerned that "anytime someone reads about Collier Township now and in the future, they'll have to read about a mass murder. What I hate is this is what they'll remember."

The pink balloons Maria Curran and her children carried across the hot black asphalt parking lot bobbed in the slight breeze.

"We brought balloons and bears for each of the women who lost their lives," Curran, of Collier Township, said. She's gone to the center since it opened, but she is not acquainted with any of the victims although her best friend is a cousin to one of the wounded. Plans called for her to be at the fitness center at the time of the shooting, but she decided to go walking instead.

As to why she brought her children to the memorial, Maria Curran said, "I guess you need to tell children about the truth, about how scary life is. They need to know."

Her son, Hunter, 8, accompanied his sister, Belle, 7, and brother Alec, 11.

"I feel sad that he came up the stairs and started killing people," Hunter said.

Anonymous handwritten notes were pinned, taped and squeezed in the flower tributes: "Our prayers are with you," "God bless America," "In memory of (victim) Heidi (Overmier)" and "God bless everyone involved in the tragedy. My love is with you."

David Lloyd, a security guard with the U.S. Security Association, worked a 12-hour shift outside the center a few days after the shooting to direct people where to place their tributes and to keep traffic moving.

"I figured there'd been quite a few people here," Lloyd said. "Family and friends are showing up, and the just curious."

Hope Mazza lived in nearby Scott Township for 20 years before moving to Washington. She knew no one involved and is not a member of the center. But she said she had to show her respect.

"I said a prayer for the families, witnesses, the responders and the community at large," Mazza said after leaving a small bouquet of fall flowers.

Her son is serving in the military in Iraq and she told him he was safer in a war zone than at home.

"It's very emotional," Mazza said after wiping away a tiny tear. "This is home and they are family."

Ashley Youschak of Bridgeville worked part time in the child care center of LA Fitness for four months. She and her niece, Alexis Padgelek, 3, left a stuffed animal. They said a little prayer and each placed a hand on the glass front window.

"I waited (before playing the tribute ) to make sure everyone I knew was accounted for," Youschak said.

Ann Lamonde of Dormont carried a bright bunch of flowers to a memorial site on the southern side of the building. She knows none of the victims and is not a member, but Lamonde said she needed to pay her respects. Her daughter and son-in-law are members, but were not in the club Tuesday night.

Jon Lindefjeld, 16, of Mt. Lebanon, is a member.

"I worked out Monday and skipped Tuesday," he said. He first arrived, wondering when the club was going to reopen, which is not expected to be for several weeks.

"I'm definitely willing to go back. I doubt anything like that will happen again," Lindefjeld said.

A short time later he returned with three of this friends. This time he brought flowers.

"It's a sign of respect, a sign of showing and acknowledging what happened here," he said of the tribute he and hundreds of others have left.

The victims

Heidi Overmier

Heidi Overmier, 46, of Carnegie, was pronounced dead at 8:24 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 4, just minutes after being shot by George Sodini at LA Fitness in Bridgeville.

Overmier grew up in West Mifflin and graduated from Penn State University in 1986 with a bachelor's degree in recreation and parks. The divorced mother of one was director of school sales at Kennywood Park in West Mifflin.

"Everyone at Kennywood is just devastated over Heidi's death," said Keith Hood, director of marketing at the park and Overmier's boss. Although the Kennywood staff was grieving, there were business matters that needed to be handled. Hood held a meeting Aug. 6 to discuss the park's upcoming fall fantasy parades, which were just one of Overmier's responsibilities.

"We found that Heidi had already taken care of everything a couple days ago. That's the kind of person she was," said Hood, who described his former employee as diligent, efficient and thorough. "She was a quiet, behind-the-scenes type of person, but she took care of stuff and had a great work ethic. Heidi was a great employee. She just made life so much easier."

Overmier developed relationships with everyone in the group sales office. "Everyone had a lot of respect for Heidi. She was very pleasant, professional and competent. I think our sign on the highway says it best, 'We'll miss you Heidi.'"

Overmier is survived by her son, Ian; mother, Joy Jordan of North Versailles; sisters, Terry (Regis) Schuchert, Connie Moneck, Leah (Louis) Masar; brother, James (Renee) Stapf; and stepmother Billie Stapf. She is preceded in death by her father, Karl Stapf.

A funeral service was held Aug. 8 at the Bridgeville United Methodist Church. Memorials may be made in her name to the church.

Elizabeth Gannon

Elizabeth Gannon, 49, died after being shot by Sodini at LA Fitness in Bridgeville. She was also pronounced dead at 8:24 p.m.

Gannon was a life-long resident of Green Tree and a 1978 graduate of Bishop-Canevin High School. For the past 13 years she worked as a radiology technician at Allegheny General Hospital on Pittsburgh's North Side.

"Everyone at West Penn Allegheny Health System is extremely saddened by the loss of Elizabeth Gannon. Betsy was not only a tremendous asset as a radiology technologist at Allegheny Orthopedics for the past 13 years, she was also a wonderful, caring person whose smile would brighten the day of both her colleagues and patients," said Patrick J. DeMeo, MD, director of the Division of Sports Medicine and chair of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at Allegheny General Hospital. "I would like to offer my sincere condolences to Betsy's family during this difficult time. She will be greatly missed at West Penn Allegheny, where her life touched that of so many others."

In 1998 Gannon married Joseph W. Michels, but the couple divorced last year.

Gannon is survived by her sister, Peggy Klions of Ohio; brother, Martin Gannon; nieces Carolyn Elizabeth, Julie Ann, Kevin Howard, and Laura Joy Klions; boyfriend, Michael Interthal; relatives Joseph and Josephine Gannon of Bethel Park, Esther Dunich of Carnegie and Joan (Holian) O'Leary (Bill) of Cleveland, Ohio; and her beloved dog, Lady. She is preceded in death by her parents, Martin and Maureen Gannon.

A Mass of Christian burial was held Saturday at St. Margaret of Scotland Church in Green Tree. Memorial contributions may be made to Center for Victims of Violence and Crimes, 5916 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15206.

Jody Billingsley

Jody Billingsley, 37, of Mt. Lebanon, was also shot by Sodini but not pronounced dead until 8:52 p.m., at St. Clair Hospital.

To read more, visit The Almanac web site.


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