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[Phil Didion FOR THE CINCINNATI ENQUIRER]

Aftermath

Aftermath, Episode 5: ‘I just froze’

At 23, Layla Bush was excited to work her first real desk job after college. Then a gunman opened fire at her Seattle office, killing one. She was the person who buzzed him inside.

As a kid, Layla Bush thought she might grow up to be an inventor. She witnessed ambition and hard work in her parents — her dad was an electronics technician who worked for the military overseas, her mom a nurse — and wanted to emulate them.

A voracious reader and self-professed math geek, she got her associate’s degree while still in high school. Her early ambitions for inventing shifted to sociology, and then to nonprofit work.

By her early 20s she was still figuring out her career. But when she nabbed her first real office job in Seattle, she felt she was on the right path.

Layla didn’t get the chance to see where it led.

In the summer of 2006, she was 23 and working at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, a fund-raising nonprofit. She answered phone calls, organized the supply closet and greeted visitors.

One Friday afternoon in late July, she was at the fax machine around the corner from her desk when the front door buzzed. The voice over the phone intercom was Kelsey, her manager’s niece, someone Layla was expecting. Remotely, she unlocked the door.

What Layla didn’t know was that, outside, Kelsey had a gun to her head. The man holding it followed Kelsey inside and approached Layla, who’d returned to her desk. Kelsey hurried up the stairs, locked herself in the bathroom, and called 911. Layla was left alone with a stranger who was pointing a handgun at her face, ranting about Israel and the Middle East. When another employee picked up the phone to dial 911, he opened fire.

He shot Layla in the abdomen and shot several other workers, only to return to where she was bleeding on the floor. Momentarily, they locked eyes. Then he shot her again.

Layla woke up a few weeks later in the hospital missing part of her pancreas, part of her liver, and all of her spleen. Her parents told her that among the five other female coworkers who’d been shot, one had died. That was Pamela Waechter, the organization’s 58-year-old director of annual giving.

The news wracked Layla with guilt. “I was the gatekeeper,” she says. “I was responsible for the safety of the building.”

Each year there are more than 400 workplace homicides in the United States, most of which are shootings. An FBI analysis found an increasing trend in workplace active shooter incidents between 2000 and 2013. Over that span, such incidents left more than 1,000 people dead or wounded.

The bullet that struck Layla in the abdomen was a hollow-point, a round designed to mushroom inside the body. It ripped through an artery near her kidney, her pancreas, spleen, stomach, and liver before lodging in her spine. Another bullet hit her shoulder, tearing a joint and fracturing her shoulder blade.

After months in the hospital, Layla went home. Her dad stayed in Seattle to help her recuperate, and she remembers him making macaroni and cheese with extra butter to help her gain weight. In physical therapy, she relearned how to walk, first with a walker, then with a cane.

“I’m not going to be able to dance. I can’t bowl. I can’t put my pants on standing up,” she told a local reporter about a year after the shooting. At that point, she tried to go back to work at the Jewish Federation. Despite newly installed bullet-proof glass and security doors, she felt nervous. “The more I went in, the more anxious I was getting,” she says. Even simple tasks, like addressing envelopes, were hard to manage. She says she switched to working at home, but eventually quit.

Layla went to graduate school in public administration, expecting the excruciating pain in her right leg to fade away. It didn’t. The pain still keeps her from sitting or standing for long stretches.

Because of these limitations, she doubts she’ll ever be able to work full time, “unless they come up with some magical cure for nerve pain. Or I found the perfect employer where I could work from home,” she says. “It’s like, could I find a job where I could work in a recliner chair?”

Over the years, she’s considered becoming a dog trainer, a workout coach, a psychologist, a social worker. For a few months she tried working as an assistant for a local business owner, but loud noises from the neighboring office made it difficult to focus. A couple of times, she says, she dove under her desk, hiding from an imagined shooter. “My mind would just shut down,” she says. “It was just too much.”

Almost 12 years later, she replays the attack and wonders how she could have acted differently than she did. What if she’d picked up the fire extinguisher near her desk and whacked the gunman in the head? What if she’d tried to reason with him? Would that have saved Pam’s life?

“But I had a gun in my face,” she says, “and I just kind of froze.”

Physical pain hems her in, but she senses a deeper impairment: fear of responsibility. She hasn’t forgiven herself for what happened at the Jewish Federation. She feels like she can’t be trusted.

Layla fills her days with visits to a psychologist, errands and gym workouts to quiet the pain from her injuries. She reads about politics online, feeding her curious brain. She looks for small ways to contribute — giving a friend a ride, cooking for her husband, updating the website for a local crisis chat service.

Most days, her life is one of limits, carefully parceled-out time for sitting and standing. But a few nights a week she goes to her husband’s store, a cozy board game shop and cafe in Lynnwood, a suburb of Seattle.

Inside, amid friendly banter and the patter of dice, her mission is clear. Her favorite games are those that require players to work together, where she can help other characters escape from peril. Where her destiny is fueled by the choices she makes.

“It is nice to play a hero, to see my character making a difference,” she says. “I find that to be pretty satisfying.”