Heroes in horror: Mass shootings across America create a celebrity culture around victims
Faced with the tragedy of a mass shooting, some victims have rose to the top to help make change Nashville Tennessean
When James Shaw Jr. lunged for a crazed gunman, wrestling an AR-15-style rifle from the man's hands and tossing it behind the counter at a terrorized Waffle House, he unexpectedly launched himself into a role he never could have imagined.
Within hours, Shaw Jr. was being heralded as a hero for his bravery.
His actions catapulted him into the spotlight at a police news conference less than 12 hours after the mass shooting that killed four people, wounded several others and left the city of Nashville in a panic.
Days later, he stood before the Tennessee state legislature, lauded for his altruism. He appeared on CNN and in the New York Times. He shook hands with NBA star Dwyane Wade on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show." He had to hire a public relations representative to field all the appearance and interview requests.
He used his newfound celebrity to raise money for victims and start a nonprofit.
"I know you don't want to be called a hero," Wade said to Shaw Jr. on "Ellen" that day, "but I look at you as an American hero."
It is a remarkable story. A regular Nashvillian put on a metaphorical superhero cape and saved lives. And the nation latched on. Why?
The media and the American people love a hero. Such exploits fill the pages of books and the frames of movies and TV shows. And, in the darkest moments, people often look for a light. Horror met with heroism.
Six months after the Waffle House massacre, those bright lights haven't dimmed for Shaw.
But what about the others? Hundreds of active shooter attacks have occurred in the United States in the last two decades. Public interest and an aggressive 24-hour news cycle have created a complex connection between tragedy and celebrity.
Victims have vaulted into the spotlight. Some have stayed, many have faded.
Perpetrators propelled to infamy
The first celebrities of mass shootings aren't always the heroes.
It is the culprits of tragedy who quickly become household names.
On a quest to understand a perpetrator's motivations and mindset, media delve deep into the accused's history. Photos of perpetrators flash across every screen. Manifestos are published in full.
As a result — from the hours after two teens killed 13 people at Columbine High School to the day 49 people were shot dead in an Orlando nightclub — the accused often live on in infamy.
In 2012, a gunman burst into a Colorado movie theater during a midnight screening of the film "The Dark Knight Rises." Dressed in tactical clothing, he set off tear gas grenades and fired multiple weapons at the terrified audience.
Twelve people died, approximately 70 others were wounded.
In the aftermath, it was the perpetrator's name that people repeated and remembered. He rapidly became better known than any of the victims.
Alex Teves, 24 years old with a master's degree in psychology and a dry sense of humor, was among those killed.
He was a hero. In the theater that night, the young man who often wore a T-shirt offering "free hugs" threw his body over his girlfriend, protecting her from physical harm.
When his parents turned on the television, frantically searching for news of his fate, all they saw was the perpetrator's face.
"Everywhere you went, everything you turned on, it was all about this nefarious monster," his dad, Tom Teves, remembers.
There was nothing available about those injured or killed, his mom, Caren Teves, says. No information for family members missing loved ones.
With Alex Teves as inspiration, his parents created the No Notoriety campaign in hopes of stopping villains from becoming folk heroes.
Advocates support the initial reporting of a perpetrator's name and believe the public should learn about his or her background, mindset and motivations.
But they want to emphasize the victims and the first responders, the survivors and the communities devastated by the violence.
"Our stories," Caren Teves says, "are our power."
'The world does deserve to hear about our heroes'
With those stories, the injured and the dead become recognized because of the violence committed against them, writes Lindsay Steenberg, a professor at England's Oxford Brookes University and author of articles on crime and media culture.
Some embrace this role. They emerge from tragedy honored for altruistic actions, willing to become the beacon for hope and goodness against evil. Or they step forward in the aftermath of horror with purpose, striving to become advocates for change.
Others seek shelter from the media onslaught, reeling from the trauma and trying to reconcile the actions against them.
All the while, onlookers clamor for more, perhaps in a quest to humanize tragedy or in a macabre inability to look away from the horror.
When the media first approached the Teves family for interviews after the movie theater shooting, they declined. They were in too much shock.
But as reporters continued to dig, turning up old photos of their son — and some misinformation — they realized it was important to come forward.
The world needed to know about their son's life, one the perpetrator had stolen.
It wasn't easy to talk about.
"It would be so much easier for Tom and I to never get out of bed," Caren Teves says.
Even now, six years later, "It's very difficult to plant our feet on the floor every single day through our pain and loss."
And, Caren Teves admits, there is a horrible underbelly that comes with being a victim in the public eye, even for those suffering from injury and loss.
The Teves have received death threats. People have said they made Alex up. That he didn't exist. That he wasn't a victim.
But he was.
"The world does deserve to hear about our heroes and those who sacrifice and those who were senselessly taken," Caren Teves says.
"We deserve that."
They stand in the spotlight in defiance, to honor and remember their son.
Tell your story: An 'ultimatum' to a life-saving political intern
Daniel Hernandez didn't choose the limelight, tragedy thrust him there.
He was a 20-year-old political intern when a gunman strode into the parking lot of a Tuscon grocery store and shot Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in the head from near point-blank range.
Hernandez, who trained as a nursing assistant in high school, acted on instinct. He dropped his clipboard and rounded the corner, running 40 feet to where he heard the gunfire.
Then he got to Giffords. Badly injured, she had started to asphyxiate, breathing in blood.
Hernandez braced the fallen U.S. congresswoman against his chest, applying pressure to her head wound. He asked her questions to keep her alert until the medics arrived.
Six people were killed during the shooting rampage, 13 more were injured. Authorities said Giffords was the main target. Hernandez was credited with helping save her life.
Within hours the media swarmed and Hernandez found himself processing a national tragedy on television in front of millions of people.
Members of Giffords' staff insisted he speak up. Tell your story one time, they told him, or the media will hound you. He called it an "ultimatum." As a college student five days into an unpaid internship, he didn't know any better.
More than 2,800 interviews later, Hernandez is still talking about it. He is a public official now, elected to the Arizona House of Representatives in 2016. In that role, he responds to media requests about many topics: immigration, gay rights, guns.
But nothing will ever eclipse the response he received after the 2011 attack, he says.
"It doesn’t matter what I do now," he says. "I know for a fact, I will never have as much press interest as I did back then."
He spent an hour with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, getting a master class on being in public life. He attended the State of Union with Michelle Obama for his 21st birthday. He published a book and won a seat on the Tuscon-area school board before he even graduated college.
He knows that his experiences opened doors, gave him a platform on which to step up into public service. And, he says, every tragedy needs a messenger to remind people that gun violence "isn't sanitized. It is painful and traumatic and awful."
It may not have been by choice at first, but now he is willing to be that voice.
"I am much more than what happened eight years ago," Hernandez says, "but because of what happened, I want to find solutions. ... This is insanely personal."
Privacy wasn't an option for former congresswoman
Many of those personal hero stories remain untold.
A potential victim takes action and saves lives at one in every six "active attacks," according to research conducted by Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Center at Texas State University.
An active attack, according to the organization's definition, occurs when an individual or individuals is killing or attempting to kill multiple unrelated people in a public space.
To constantly relive the trauma, to — in a very public way — expose the emotions connected to significant injury or loss, can feel like revictimization.
"You certainly have to respect that," says Capt. Mark Kelly, Giffords' husband.
As a U.S. congresswoman, Giffords already had prominence most victims do not.
Despite the extent of her injuries — a breathing tube, a tracheotomy, limited use of her right arm and leg — she could not cower from the cameras.
"It wasn't an option to say, 'This is a private, personal thing and we are not going to talk about it publicly,"' Kelly says now.
Today, public appearances dominate her schedule as she and Kelly travel across the country advocating for their organization called Giffords, which addresses gun violence and ownership.
Gabrielle Giffords has found healing in the high demand.
"Gabby gets a lot of energy from interacting with people," Kelly says of his wife. "Her speaking with people is a very positive experience for her. It really helps her."
"I don’t think that's true for everybody," he adds.
It is impossible to quantify how the role of hero, or of advocate, impacts the victims.
Experts in forensic psychiatry say no significant literature or research exists on the effect of celebrity on targets of violence.
The role of this type of hero, in itself, is a challenge to comprehend. It is foisted upon them after a violation of safety and security.
"Why would you risk your life for a person you don’t know?" says Frank Farley, a former president of the American Psychological Association, who has studied risk-taking and heroism. "It’s an astounding thing.
"It’s one of the most important ingredients in humanity, and one of the least understood."
In general, Farley conjectures that stepping into the spotlight and receiving accolades can be primarily positive — helping the victims overcome ups and downs in the future.
"When you take risks and survive, it makes you stronger," Farley says.
But, he says, if the publicity is too intrusive and begins to redefine the victims' lives in ways they don’t enjoy, it could lead to negative problems going forward.
"And that’s a very unpredictable thing. ... The accolades will fade away quite quickly."
Hernandez underscores that worry.
"It's a very, very traumatizing thing to go from talking to every news channel you can think of and then the next week you have to go back to your daily life — grocery shopping and going to work," he says.
He is most concerned for the youngest advocates, like the teenagers from Parkland, Florida, who in the aftermath of violence have had tremendous pressure heaved on them.
"Who is there to make sure they realize that just because the attention goes away that doesn't mean they have lost?" Hernandez asks. "You can hit a wall and it can be really demoralizing, but that's not to say we can't make change."
Purpose of surviving? To speak out
Young advocates do believe that voices can rise and movements can spread.
After the Parkland school shooting, students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas stepped behind microphones across the country.
The media sought their stories, but reporters didn't have to beleaguer the victims. The students walked boldly to prominence.
This summer, she crossed the wide fields of Manchester, Tennessee, and stepped on stage next to indie folk band Bon Iver to share her story with thousands at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival.
The appearance came just months after Eastmond sat in her Holocaust history class at Stoneman Douglas High School while an armed former student began shooting on campus. The gunman shot through the window. Bullets flew past her face.
When the student in front of her was hit, they both tumbled to the floor.
She hid underneath her classmate's body to protect herself until the shooting stopped.
At Bonnaroo, she continued the advocacy started by the Stoneman Douglas survivors. She led discussions on guns and registered people to vote — particularly those of her generation.
"If I wasn't here, I would probably be like, 'What was my purpose of surviving?' That's why I speak out," she told a small group of media gathered for a panel at Bonnaroo.
"It's overwhelming to have that weight put on us as such a young generation, but we're doing it for the next generation, our kids and our younger brothers and sisters.
"We took that baton, and we are running with it now and it's worth it."
'It's not like we're that famous'
In the aftermath of a thwarted train attack three years ago, a therapist told Army National Guard Specialist Alek Skarlatos the best way to avoid post-traumatic stress disorder was to stay busy.
"And we were definitely busy," he says.
The then-22-year-old Skarlatos was on a European vacation with two friends after a nine-month deployment in Afghanistan when he faced a terrorist intent on killing passengers on a high-speed train bound for Paris.
Skarlatos heard the gunshot first, and the sound of breaking glass behind him. Then a train employee came running by at a full sprint.
When Skarlatos turned, he saw a shirtless man with an AK-47.
"It felt like my heart dropped and time stopped all at the same time," he says.
What unfolded next was a climactic battle — one film director Clint Eastwood made into an on-screen drama, casting the real heroes as stars.
Together Skarlatos and his two friends, U.S. Air Force Airman First Class Spencer Stone and college student Anthony Sadler, tackled and disarmed the assailant, with Spencer suffering knife wounds in his neck as he held the attacker in a chokehold.
Later that same night, when the train was to safety and reporters arrived at their hotel to interview survivors, Skarlatos didn’t think twice about talking to them.
"I never expected it to be as big of a story as it was," he says. "At the time, all we were worried about was whether we would get our train tickets reimbursed and make it to Paris or not."
They did make it, in a motorcade and with a police escort right to the embassy. Applause poured in from across the world. President Barack Obama commended them. They received Legion of Honor medals, France's highest recognition.
Skarlatos appeared on "Dancing with the Stars" and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."
He didn't think too much about the consequences of his actions that day. Months later, People magazine published a letter from a French actor who was on the train with his teenage boys during the attack.
He called the three American men "so brave, so courageous. They saved my life, my sweetheart, my sons’ lives."
When Skarlatos read the letter, he realized his family could have gotten a call that he was dead.
"That," he says, "had a bigger effect on my life than the actual event."
Three years later, the limelight has faded some. Skarlatos is back home in Oregon, running for county commissioner, hoping to bring more jobs to his rural county.
Kids reach out every once in a while, wanting to interview him for school reports. It wasn't that long ago, Skarlatos points out, that he was doing the same thing, writing papers about people he looked up to — those who shaped who he is today.
Maybe the person he's become is a celebrity. A hero.
"But it's not like we’re that famous or anything," he says. "Especially living in small town — all the people here already know who I am."
Contributing: Holly Meyer, The Tennessean
Follow Jessica Bliss on Twitter @jlbliss.