I hesitated to answer the call— I’d been up and down my eight-foot ladder a dozen times already this morning. My wife and I had just bought a house and moved in three weeks prior. Half of our things were still packed in moving boxes, filling the living space.
Moving sucks. We’ve been down this road many times. Whitney and I have been married for over thirteen years and owned a number of homes. Our lives together began in Louisville, Kentucky, but we moved to Chicago and St. Louis for my art education and graduate school after our two children were born.
Whitney had worked for Fifth Third Bank since before we met, and worked her way up to hold a crucial position as a product manager. Early in our relationship, I played the corporate life as banker too, but was bored and unhappy with the lifestyle and needed to make a significant change. Whitney’s income enabled me to pursue a mentally fulfilling yet predictably unprofitable career as an artist and educator.
After moving back to Louisville, it took me a year to find a job and I began teaching my first two courses at our local community college. So much was going on with the move and things needing to be accomplished around the house, our kids starting back to school, I was working on finishing artworks for a show opening at the end of the month, I had my new courses and students, Whitney was finalizing a project she had spent the past 18 months preparing. We were excited and enthusiastic, juggling so much with zero time to rest.
It was a warm and sunny Thursday morning, the first week of September. I was stoked because my 3D design class was having our first big critique. Whitney left for a drive up to Cincinnati for a day of meetings, which was a regular occurrence. Typically she’d leave on Wednesday morning, spend the night and return Thursday evening. We needed her help at home unpacking, so she agreed to only spend Thursdays at the headquarters so that we could get the house organized and into a normal routine.
She left just before the kids finished breakfast. They each asked her for an additional kiss as she went out the back door, so she stopped short to indulge them, and I got another kiss too. Then the kids and I were out the door a few minutes later. I dropped them off at school and went for my morning swim. Everything was perfect.
I returned home dreading to review all of the tasks Whitney had listed for me to complete earlier in the week. Her list prioritized security, garbage disposal, and laundry. Our property shares a fence with an apartment building so we chose to set up a few cameras behind the house. I knew the garbage disposal would be an undertaking requiring a solid day of work and at least three trips to the hardware store, so I’d push that off until the weekend.
I opted for the motion sensing / flood light security camera install as my first project for the day. I’d hoped to get it done this morning while it was slightly cooler outside, but it was already getting hot. I selected the ideal spot to mount the camera and jimmied the feet of the ladder precariously into a bed of smooth round creek rock. I climbed up to check the view, back down to grab the camera, and up to trace out the hole. Down again and back up now holding a hammer drill with a wide hole saw over my head. I began boring through stucco, wire lathe, and plywood.
My phone rings, lying on the ground a few steps away from the ladder. Committed to drilling smoky concrete and sawdust all over myself, I think ‘I’ll call ‘em back,’ but the saw still hasn’t made it all the way through the wall. I was looking for a break and climbed down, in favor of the diversion.
I blew the dust off the screen of my cell phone and recognized the area code, 513, as a Cincinnati number. Whitney always texts me to let me know when she’s arrived. Every so often she‘d realize that she’d forgotten to text and she would call from a Fifth Third tower number. I knew this wasn’t her because the next three digits of bank phone number didn’t match, so I was suspicious of the call.
When I put the phone to my ear I was confronted with the sound of police sirens, lots of sirens competing with one another. I thought ‘what the fuck is this?’ Then I thought about Whitney… Why hadn’t she texted? Was she in a wreck? Why wouldn’t she be calling me from her phone if she were in a wreck?
The male voice on the other end was short of breath, he says, “Is this Mr. Waller Austin?” I say “Yes,” and he introduces himself, “Mr. Waller, I am officer Al Staples with the Cincinnati Police Department..” I’m thinking oh no, it must have been a terrible car accident -why hasn’t she called?!
Then he says, “your wife Whitney has been involved in an active shooting and she has been shot multiple times in her chest.” I fucking lost it.
I think he continued to talk but I couldn’t hear anything.
What is multiple? Where in her chest? Is she alive? Is she breathing? Where has she been taken?
Then I hear Whitney. In a grimacing, pained voice, she says, “Can I talk to him?” I’m totally confused. Is she getting medical attention? How is she speaking after being shot multiple times in the chest? Will these be the last words I hear from her?
“Waller, I’ve been shot so many times and it hurts so bad but I am breathing okay and thinking logically. The ambulance is coming, just get up here!”
Officer Staples took the phone and said, “they’re taking her to UC (University of Cincinnati).”
I hung up. Ran and jumped in my car. I called my mom first, and she answered, “what’s wrong? what’s wrong? what’s wrong?” She knew it was something awful. It was so surreal I couldn’t begin to speak the words of what had happened, but I finally got it together enough to say what little information I had. The phone call with officer Staples lasted 90 seconds and that’s all I had.
Mom said, “I’ll ride with you. I’m on the way. Come pick me up! I’ll be waiting at the end of the driveway.”
Then I called the faculty head to let him know that I was going to miss class. Again, I couldn’t formulate a sentence or catch my breath. It took me a minute or two to get it out.
I dashed out of the house and jumped into my car. I called Whitney’s sister and then her mother, slowly becoming calmer as I relay the trauma— “I’ll see you in Cincinnati!”
I stopped at a red light, and made a Facebook post— “please stop what you are doing now and pray for my wife, thank you.”
I have never felt so helpless. But I raced. Ten minutes later, my mom had hopped in the passenger seat and we were on the highway. I called my children’s school to let them know what had happened and not to inform our kids of any details.
This is unbelievable. I was still frantic. Speeding 100 miles up the interstate to my dying wife who I feared may bleed out before I saw her again.
I kept repeating what had happened in my head now robotically. This was not right. Who would have shot her? A colleague? A customer? This just doesn’t make any sense. Why Whitney?
I was racing up the expressway I-71 with the speedometer hovering between 95 and 100 miles per hour. The radio was off, I didn’t want to hear a sound. I just focused on the road. As my mom prayed and pleaded for me not to kill us before we get to Whitney. I kept calling her cellphone which was going straight to voicemail. My friends and family were calling and texting me.
Mom was scanning her news apps for updates:
Two confirmed dead.
My heart sank. Please don’t be Whitney.
Then Mom pointed at her phone and said, “there’s Whitney’s foot.” I glanced at the image of a woman’s foot with red painted toenails partially covered by a white sheet below the headline, “Two Confirmed Dead at Fountain Square Shooting” and in immediate denial, I insisted, “No that’s not her foot.”
Time stood still for that ride, my mind has never raced and wandered in despair for such an extended period of time. I was so confused and scared but I had to stay positive and hopeful. I had the privilege of speaking to her and I was encouraged while dumbfounded by the strength in her voice after being shot several times in her chest.
I arrived at the hospital a little over an hour after I had received Officer Staples’ call. Police were everywhere and they had the entrances to the hospital blocked off. I hollered that my wife was shot at fountain square and an officer waved me through.
Mom said, “Go! I’ll park the car.”
I jumped out and sprinted through security to the emergency room, “my wife was shot! I need to see my wife!”
She was in the surgical intensive care unit, and it took nearly ten minutes before I was able to get clearance to see her. They said she’s stable.
A nurse walked me back to Whitney’s room where there were nearly twenty people around her. Her bed was soaked in blood, she had tubes going everywhere, and she had open wounds all over her body, but somehow she was glowing. Medicated and comfortable, she looked up at me and said, “hey baby.” I leaned over her and kissed her forehead.
One nurse squeezed my arm, looked me in the eyes and said, “Your wife is a miracle. We concluded that she was shot twelve times and it seems at the moment that the bullets missed all of her major arteries and organs.” I nodded my head in total disbelief. Appalled by the circumstances but overjoyed by the prognosis, as the worst injuries were to her right arm, and the doctors anticipate a nearly complete recovery.
So that happened.
As Whitney rested, I sat by her side and we read about the other victims’ lives, family, and friends. We read about the shooter and the police officers who ended the rampage. We discussed the ridiculousness of our involvement and decided we had to take action.
Our first two children were born in Louisville, Kentucky and are named after my family. Our third child was born that day in Cincinnati. We named it Whitney/Strong.