Officers Came Face to Face with Horror

SOURCE: 12/7/07 Omaha World Herald

NOTE: Omaha Police Sgt. Jeff Baker was in the first group of officers at Westroads Mall. Although he can't describe certain details because of the police investigation, he offered this account:

In excess of 100 mph on the Interstate en route to Westroads, time still seemed to crawl.A feeling of dread crept over me with every update given on the radio.

Shots being fired in the mall????

Upon arrival and armed with a shotgun, I entered Von Maur not knowing what I'd encounter. Twenty years in policing, 10 as a supervisor, didn't adequately prepare me for what I was about to see.

It was surreal...the smell of gunfire in the air, like the aroma of firecrackers you shot off as a kid. Shall casings on the marble floor. Mortally wounded gunshot victims.

People running past, crying. sheer terror on their faces. Others frozen and cowering under displays and in fitting rooms. Abandoned baby strollers, ladies' handbags, dropped cups of coffee and Christmas shopping bags littering the floor throughout the mall.

An alarm shrieking from overhead speakers, only partially drowning out Christmas music being played. And all the while, you're searching, guns at the ready, certain the bad guy is going to pop up from a clothing rack and kill one of you before your buddies can react and fight back.

It was surreal, like living out a horror movie. the mall swarmed with incoming officers from Omaha Police Department and other agencies.

I used the radio to warn responders that we might have a suspect on the loose with a high-powered rifle and that we had to lock down the mall. There's no time to sit and ponder options. You have to rely on your training and the officer next to you. so we broke into search elements to track down the suspect.

All the officers involved knew he had to be stopped and we were aware it was entirely possible that any one of us could be among those who would not go home to their families that night.

I experienced a wide array of emotions. Anxiety. Frustration. Sadness. Anger.

As the hours wore on and various personnel finished the task of clearing the mall and evacuating shoppers and employees, I felt exhaustion. Being at such a high state of alert for so long is taxing and I could see the emotional and physical drain on the faces of a number of police officers, federal agents and firefighters on the scene.

I got home about 9 p.m. roughly 13 hours after starting my shift. The first thing I did was hug my wife and tell her that I loved her. Then I prayed before managing about three hours of broken sleep.

Omaha shed its innocence, our own 9/11, and while this tragedy won't beat us as a city, I think Omahans will be forever changed by what happened.

It goes down as a dark day in our history, an abomination, the most senseless act of violence.

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