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Buffalo church members help save lives during grocery store shooting

10 people died — including a relative of one church member — in the supermarket massacre.

Patrick Patterson was working in the back room of the Tops Friendly Markets grocery store when the shooting began.

The 65-year-old member of the Linwood Church Of Christ in Buffalo, N.Y., heard shots and first thought it was kids with starter pistols, but he soon recognized the terror was real.

“After going to the door the first time and seeing people running toward (me) with fear, my instinct was to try to show them how to get out the back.”

Instead of trying to save his own life, Patterson hurried to usher people from the main area of the store and help them escape.     

Was he fearful? Yes, the church member said, but he didn’t let that fear stop him from acting. 

“As a manager, you kind of recognize your responsibility toward your coworkers and toward the customers,” Patterson told The Christian Chronicle. “So after going to the door the first time and seeing people running toward (me) with fear, my instinct was to try to show them how to get out the back.”

According to law enforcement, 18-year-old Payton S. Gendron of Conklin, N.Y., entered the store wearing tactical gear and carrying an assault weapon. He shot and killed 10 people, injuring three others. 

After helping those first groups of people escape, Patterson was not done. 

“When I didn’t hear any more bullets ringing out or coming toward me, I thought I might need to go back out a second time,” the manager said. He wondered “if there were any more customers or coworkers that needed to get out and just were not knowing what to do.”

Patterson said he knew that decision could have led to his last breath.

Patrick Patterson

Patrick Patterson

Looking through the store a second time, he saw someone slumped over, sitting against a shelf. The person did not appear to be moving. With their back to Patterson, the church member couldn’t confirm whether the individual was dead or alive.

“After I saw that, I thought that was enough for me — I had done as much as I could do, and it was time for me to try to get out.” 

Patterson was not alone in helping people escape from the store. One of the others who jumped into action was William Grigas, an employee at the store and a Linwood member who was recently baptized. A coworker and two customers — a man and his 8-year-old daughter — were hiding in a dairy cooler, Patterson said. Grigas helped them escape through the back. 

‘Right place at the right time’

When Linwood minister Lennie Swain heard about what had happened at the grocery store, he called Patterson directly to make sure he was healthy. When the church member didn’t answer, Swain called Patterson’s wife, who confirmed his safety.  

Swain described Patterson’s actions as courageous. 

“I also think that by God’s providential care, he was in the right place at the right time,” Swain said.  

Swain said he tried to reassure the congregation, reminding fellow Christians that God is in control.  

“And we should pray for that situation, pray for the young man that caused the situation and pray for the people who were injured in that awful event,” Swain recalled telling the congregation.  

Linwood members planned to visit shooting survivors on Wednesday, Swain said, and encourage them to visit the church and know Jesus.

Related: For survivors of Tennessee church shooting, healing will take time and patience

Making sense of a senseless killing

Patterson grapples with the reality of that day.

“I think we don’t know what day will be our last or what hour,” he said.

May 14 was just a normal day until about 2:30 p.m. when the gunman entered the store, opening fire on customers and employees inside. 

Patterson said at first he did not know what was happening. 

“At first, I couldn’t comprehend what was going on,” Patterson said. “You know, you don’t think that someone’s in your store shooting it up.”

One of the 10 killed was Aaron Salter Jr., Patterson’s second cousin on his mother’s side, who was the security guard on duty that day. His cousin, a retired police officer, shot back at the suspect, but the suspect’s tactical gear protected him. Patterson said his cousin was a good friend. National news reports have characterized Salter as a hero.

Aaron Salter Jr.

Aaron Salter Jr.

Patrick Patterson is not related to Heyward Patterson, who was also killed in the attack. 

The grocery store is located in a predominantly Black community, and authorities have called the shooting a hate crime. 

Patterson said the whole ordeal seemed to last 20 to 30 minutes. When it was over, authorities took his and other employees’ accounts of what happened. And when that was done, he said, he was left to make sense of a senseless killing.

Patterson said being a Christian and having good priorities as a man of God gave him the strength to do what he did. He said he wants others to know that everyone should prepare to meet their God because no one knows what day or hour will be their last.

He pointed to John 14:2 (King James Version): “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.”

Heaven is a prepared place for prepared people, the church member said. 

“Therefore, we have an opportunity to make it right while we still have breath,” he said. 

Gendron is scheduled to attend a felony hearing at 9:30 a.m. Thursday. He could face a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole if convicted.

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