Chattanooga, Tenn.

The sobs of a man, grief-stricken with pain, could still be heard feet away, even as he buried his face and hands in the grassy ground and knelt in front of an American flag that leaned against a caution-tape-wrapped pole. 

Across the lot, another man, dressed in clothes normally worn by a Christian pastor, looked at me before making his way to the person on the ground. Upon reaching him, he knelt with one knee and placed his hand on his back to comfort him — in silence. 

Nobody interrupted the two during their shared moment of mourning in front of the Armed Forces Career Center, a military recruitment office in a small strip mall at the intersection of Old Lee Highway and Tennessee 153 in Chattanooga on Thursday. Many observers came to the site of a shooting attack, but nobody asked questions or made comments. They simply watched.

I found myself bowing in prayer at the site, because, perhaps like the man on the ground, I felt the same emotions that many local residents of Tennesee’s fourth-largest city had in the aftermath of the shooting attacks at a military recruitment office and a joint Marine-Navy training facility in Chattanooga. Four Marines died and three people were wounded. These emotions were sadness, fear and confusion. 

City of questions

I was confused when my husband told me that news outlets were reporting the presence of an “active shooter” in Chattanooga on Thursday morning. He told me this as we were en route to the city for the day to pick up our son from a two-week vacation with my parents and siblings who live in the metro area. 

Chattanooga is a big, bustling city, but I didn’t expect that an attack that federal and local authorities are investigating as “an act of terror” could happen there. After all, I thought I knew the city: from its busy roads and businesses to its quiet homes on top of the hills. 

But I quickly felt fear when I learned that the attacks happened at places very familiar to my family, especially because my brother and mother use these roads to get to and from work. My brother was especially shaken because he holds memories from these two military facilities during his high school and college years. 

I used to drive through Lee and Amnicola highways (where the second attack took place) when I was working and living in the city. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw a picture of Amnicola Highway, normally with flowing traffic, become a parking lot for dozens of police and emergency vehicles. An image of my son flashed in mind when I heard a report that the gunman was also near the riverpark where my family and friends gather many times. 

As we approached Chattanooga, we saw two military planes flying just above the mountains, attempting to land at the airport. The Scenic City momentarily become a city of questions. 

Those who use the affected roads frequently found themselves asking which new roads to take and how to avoid the traffic on the congested interstate. Those who were inside the facilities which were on lockdown — restaurants, malls, schools in the area — probably asked themselves if they were safe and if/when they can get home. Like many others, I found myself on the phone with my family asking if they were OK. 

More questions, however, were being asked about the facts surrounding the incident before some of the details were revealed by authorities during an afternoon press conference. But when it was reported that the shooter, who was killed by police, was identified as Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, a 24-year-old graduate of Hixson High School and University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, it produced one, burning question: Why did this young, suburban man commit such an act? This question is still unanswered today. 

The guiding hand

I felt sad as I glanced at some of the evidence of the horrific act: bullet holes on the thick glass doors and windows of the recruitment center, visible even from beyond the caution tape that surrounded the facility’s immediate parking lot. My thoughts and prayers went to those who have been at the other side of the glass, those who ducked to avoid the bullets and those in the other facility who did not manage to avoid them. 

But I was also saddened to learn that just like in recent deadly shooting incidents in other parts of the country, the gunman was not only young but also a part of the community. It appears to be a disturbing trend. I also wondered what would become of his family. 

I found myself asking if some things could have been done to prevent these individuals from making these deadly decisions. While I understand that these violent actions are solely the individual’s own, is there something more we can do to influence young people in a positive way?

From the pastor’s actions, I also saw a community’s will and strength to hold each other in tragic moments. But from this simple act of kindness, I may have found an answer to the question I previously posed:

Like him, maybe we should place a guiding hand on young and old alike, helping them in times of need and lending an ear to listen in times of both joy and sorrow. Maybe we should stop momentarily from our fast-paced lives to talk more and get to know each other more. 

These approaches may not solve all of our problems, but they are steps in the right direction. 

Reporter Dianne Frances D. Powell can be reached at 812-231-4299 or dianne.powell@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribstarDianne.