Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Life and death in one day

Today was Samantha's 4th birthday, which we have been anticipating for quite some time. Last night she was hopping up and down, repeatedly yelling, "ICANTWAITTOBEFOUR!!!!" My plan for the day was to go to work, leave a little early, get a good workout at the gym and head home in time to meet the family for a birthday dinner at Samantha's favorite restaurant (Escalante's). Jamie planned on taking Samantha to school at 9:30, then running errands with Jack during the day until Sam got out at 2:30.

I left the house at 8:40 this morning. Approximately 30 seconds later the daily agenda was totally changed. I'm processing this as I type, so please forgive me if it's too long or too scattered. As usual, though, I'll try to put some structure around it.

Part 1 -- Chronologic events from inside my head

At 8:40 I approached the corner of Burdine and Dryad, an intersection that borders Westbury High School, less than two blocks from my house. As I was about to turn left, I saw a boy lying in the street to my right, with a few friends around him crying and talking on cell phones. I hit "Mute" on my laptop computer (was listening to a sermon), put the car in reverse, parked on the curb and called 911.

First thought -- "He passed out, had a seizure, or overdosed on drugs."

The 911 operator asked me what dispatch I needed, and I said, "Ambulance". They transferred my call and I gave my location while walking across the street. There were two girls and two boys around the boy on the ground. All five of them looked to be about 16 years old, and I could tell that whatever happened, I had only missed it by a few seconds. This thing had just started. As I walked up to them, I noticed two things about the boy. First, he had a strange tattoo on his right hip/oblique (visible because his shirt was hiked up a few inches, and he wore low-hanging jeans). Second, he had a small pool of blood, perhaps 1tbsp, in his belly button.

Second thought -- "He was hit by a car and is bleeding internally."

By now I've been on the phone about 30 seconds and am speaking to the four teenagers. I tell them I know CPR and they back away, glad to let someone else be in charge. That's when I get a sudden realization of the difference between 16 years old and 30 years old. They're talking on their cell phones to friends and family, not to emergency personnel. I'm the only one calling this in to 911, and I'm the only adult on the scene. A few other students are gathering around, but they're staying back.

As I kneel down I realize the boy isn't breathing. I ask the teens if he was hit, and they say, "yes". I can tell by their voices they're super-scared and probably didn't even hear my question. I look again at the pool of blood but it doesn't appear to be growing. That's good. I need to get this kid breathing and get his heart pumping until the ambulance/EMT arrives. That shouldn't be long; there's a fire station less than 1/2 mile away.

I hear that the boy's name is Julian, and I grab his face gently to pull it towards me and check his mouth. Then I see his eyes and see that he's already gone. Just gone. There's nothing there. It wasn't even sad -- it was like looking at a shoe, a rock or some other non-living thing. I doubt I will ever forget that face.

I look again at his mouth and don't see any blood. But his lips are so pale. So pale and dry. How could that happen so fast? Why is he already gone? This whole time I've been pinching the cell phone between my shoulder and ear so I could use both hands. I talked the 911 dispatch through everything I was doing.

Time to start chest compressions. I lift his black shirt up to find his sternum and get my hand in the correct position for CPR. That's when I finally saw the hole. A tiny, perfectly round hole about one inch below the sternum. If you gave me a magic marker and five minutes I couldn't draw a hole any more in the center of his chest.

Final thought/realization -- "This boy's been shot. It's over. He's gone."

I tell the dispatcher that there's a bullet hole in chest. No blood. I can see right down into his chest, but no blood came out. And there's a pool of blood in his belly button, but no trail down from the chest wound. Where'd the belly blood come from? No matter, I start chest compressions anyway. After about 5 seconds, the fire truck arrived and they immediately told me and everyone else to back away from the body. This pissed me off because they didn't even start CPR for another few minutes. Not that it would have made a difference anyway.

The whole story I recounted took approximately two minutes to live. I was at the crime scene for nearly three hours more. The next section will be some memory flashes from those three hours.

Part 2 -- Randon memory flashes from the rest of the morning

  1. Julian is holding an iPod in his hand, wires and earbuds splayed out on the ground. One of the other boys takes it from him and gives it to another boy. There's nothing sinister or selfish about the act -- it looks more like, "here, this is a piece of our friend and we should have it before they take him away." It wouldn't surprise me if the boy keeps it his whole life but never turns it on.
  2. The EMTs put on gloves and start CPR, but it's just for show. I'm no expert but this is obvious even to me.
  3. I call Jamie and tell her what happened. I hold it together OK, but need to keep the call short. As long as I stay in the moment I seem perfectly composed and objective. My mom has always been the same way in crises, and this is a trait I'm certainly grateful to inherit.
  4. A huge black guy shows up on the scene. Black pants, tan shirt, tie, and a linebacker body. This guy is in. Charge. No doubt about it. He tells all the bystanders to get out of there, and go to school/home/wherever. Except the few witnesses and me. I never do figure out this guy's title/authority.
  5. The high school principal shows up, looking sharp in a tie and shiny shoes. He looks sorta like Tommy Davidson, the comedian. I can't imagine what he's going to go through today. What a challenge -- this high school has over 2,000 students. He is constantly talking on a Blackberry/phone combo that is leap years beyond my technology understanding.
  6. The ambulance arrives and the emergency team discusses which hospital to take Julian to. It's clear that they're only selecting the hospital that will call the official time of deaath. "Official" time of death... what a weird concept. I saw Julian at 8:40, and I'm guessing that his time of death was around 8:39:30. Note: Ben Taub Hospital pronounced Julian Ruiz dead at 9:10 a.m.
  7. Julian is finally driven away. Weird... not a drop of blood on the street. That makes sense, though, because the bullet hole was so small it had to be a .22. And that caliber wouldn't penetrate all the way through and leave an exit wound.
  8. One of the girls/witnesses, a friend of Julian's, comes up to me to thank me for what I did. I try to reply with something perfect but just blurt out, "You're welcome... I'm so sorry." For the first and only time all day, I get really choked up. Julian isn't sad to me because he's gone, and there's no pain there. But his friends are in terrible pain, and this gets to me.
  9. I've been told to stay until the homicide detectives can ask me some questions. They won't be there for another hour or so. When people get stressed they go to their comfort zone. My comfort zone is "intellectual curiosity", so I naturally start watching the building swarm of officers, emergency personnel and media to see how these things get processed and handled.
  10. My father-in-law calls to tell me he will be there soon (he's a chaplain and lives three doors down from us). It will be nice to have a familiar face there. Well, some of the news reporters are familiar faces, but that doesn't exactly give me comfort. I'm not going anywhere near them.
  11. A street-clothed cop comes onto the scene. He walks up near the former location of the body and says, "It wasn't Julian, was it?". He looks at me and I nod yes. He gets angry/frustrated and starts talking to the other officers for more information. It becomes evident that this guy spends a lot of time with these high school kids and knows them all by name. He's even given Julian a lot of advice on life and gangs. Julian didn't listen. I find it very encouraging to see a semi-undercover cop so involved with these kids.
  12. I look at the girls' faces. They're listening now -- this is changing them. The boys seem detached, maybe angry? Not a vengeful anger, though. They look too weak for that (this isn't a slam on them, just the truth).
  13. I overhear one of the boys tell an officer that there were two shots fired. That explains the pool of blood in his belly button... that's where the other bullet hit.
  14. An officer is talking to the Houston school district superintendent, and pulls out an awesome flash card with a gang symbol index. They start comparing the pictures to some of the graffiti in the area.
  15. My father-in-law arrives and stands outside the yellow police tape. I talk to him for a minute, but the reporters and cameramen start coming over to me, so I walk back to the other side of the crime scene.
  16. Eight kids get escorted out of school and brought over to the crime scene. All of them are alleged witnesses to the shooting, but went to class anyway. I also find out that my 911 call was the only one placed. WHAT?!?!? At least 12 witnesses, most of them on cell phones, but none of them call it in? I know they're just kids, but get a freakin' clue. Nobody should be allowed to use a cell phone unless they take an oath to use it to help people in a crisis by calling 911. If they can use the cell in a car while driving, eating and applying makeup, they can use it to save a life.
  17. I can hear that the witnesses have some good info. I see the suspect's name, his car's description and a drawing of his wheel rims in an officer's notepad.
  18. BBICG (Big Black In Charge Guy) yells at an officer who was talking on his radio about the scene. "Gimme fuckin' radio silence!", he says. They comply. Heck, I don't even have a radio but I almost said, "Yessir!".
  19. The homicide detectives show up on the scene, and everything changes. Everbody turns it up a notch, and I hear one officer say, "Now the real work starts." I realize that the past hour was a preparation to give these two detectives all the info they need to capture the suspect and build a case.
  20. It is HOT out here! The day ends up setting a record high of 84 degrees.
  21. The detectives hilariously fit the Hollywood sterotype. Seriously, they look like a 1980s version of a detective. Really bad suits, dumb haircuts, one guy wearing sunglasses. I'm hoping looks are deceiving and that these guys are actually sharp investigators.
  22. I've given my story to a couple of the officers on scene, and made some friends in the process. I ask about the "no blood" chest wound and they say that is rare. Mostly they see head wounds, though, which always bleed a lot. My father-in-law guesses that the chest shot clipped some artery and Julian bled out internally while laying on his back.
  23. After talking to one of the detectives, he decides that I don't need to go downtown for processing since I didn't witness anything. I'm glad to finally leave.
  24. My father-in-law and I walk to my car; we're gonna get some coffee and talk. Neither of us drinks coffee, but that is a seemingly insignificant detail. A few of the camermen follow me and ask me to talk to them, but I say, "No thanks".
  25. In the car, he asks me how this fits into all my recent wrestlings with faith and God. I explain for a few minutes that it all fits perfectly, and my faith is stronger than ever, although dramatically changed from any other time in my life. Another topic for a future blog post.

Final note: The story so far is that Julian was shot because he refused to join a gang.

Part 3 -- Picture time

Below are two pictures. The first is an untouched one from a local news station. The second one has my notes.

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Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

  1. A civilian lady who seemed to work in some type of security role on campus. She tried to comfort the kids several times but was very emotional herself.
  2. Very close friend of Julian. I'm guessing she was his girlfriend. There from the moment I arrived.
  3. Another friend, also there the whole time. She's the one who thanked me.
  4. Friend of Julian. Had the most detailed information for police. He's the one who grabbed the iPod and handed it to another guy.
  5. Principal of Westbury High School, mentioned in point #5 above.
  6. The street-clothed cop mentioned in point # 11 above.
  7. Me.
  8. Where Julian died.


Roland said...

I've been thinking about this for the whole day. I'm glad you wrote this out and glad I had the chance to read it.

When I saw RW's post on JPs, my hands started to shake when I tried to respond. Just didn't know what to say. Still don't. Terrible experience.

This is one of those stories, unfortunately, that everyone should read. Heartbreaking and heartbreaking and heartbreaking again. No matter the angle, it all comes down to that.

You did a grand thing that can only help show those kids that the world has good in it too. Even in a terrible circumstance.

My prayers to you.


Bob Devlin said...


I have tears in my eyes reading your account of the day. I have two sons around Julian's age and i worry each day that they are out there. I'm going to have them read this so they can try to understand my worries.

You showed amazing strength, my friend, a strength most of us don't have. That strength will carry you though this harrowing experience. You do have a friend here to lean on if you need it.

Take care.

FishrCutB8 said...

I don't know what to say, except that maybe there is power in those children seeing a total stranger stop to do the right thing. My thoughts and prayers will be with you, my friend.

Redlefty said...

You are all very dear to me. Thank you.

NB said...

Wow man. Just wow. I'm supposed to be articulate--it's my profession, but words escape me.

~aj~ said...

Michael, oh my gosh...I just can't even fathom it. I just want you to know that you're in our prayers. I know this is something you don't just "get over".

We are so proud of you for doing all you could to help.

Hope Samantha still had a special day.


Hal Johnson said...

Sheesh, I can certainly assert that I've never read a blog account like this one. I agree with fishrcut8: the leadership you showed those young people at such a tragic time may well pay dividends later. Lord, let's hope so.

David said...

Thank you. For all of it.

debby said...

Wow. I just read this. You know, nearly 25 years ago, I was following a school bus through a military base in the blowing snow. A three year old was killed. The weird thing is that I stood there with a screaming bus driver for what felt like forever before anyone else came. I know what you mean when you say that you looked at this boy and there was no shock, like he was a rock or something. My question: now, all these months later...do you think it has changed you? Not in a traumatic way, but in a profound, matter of fact way?

Redlefty said...

Debby, that's an outstanding question. Simple and stimulating. Here's my short answer, and if you don't mind, I'd like to expand it in an upcoming post:

1) An increased affinity for teenagers and the many hispanic people in our neighborhood

2) An increased confidence that I can stay calm and handle things in a crisis

3) A decreased quickness to judgment of people whose stories I don't know

These things are real-world, everyday differences in my pre-Julian and post-Julian self. Again, great question and thanks for your comment.