HIGHLAND PARK, IL – David Shapiro and his wife brought their two young children to enjoy the Independence Day parade in their hometown north of Chicago, taking a seat in front of a boutique winery.
The Children’s Parade in downtown Highland Park was already underway, with about 50 school-aged children riding bicycles, scooters and tricycles. The Maxwell Street Klezmer Band, with a full drum set and brass section, began playing on the trailer platform.
Then there was a sound that Shapiro knew wasn’t right: pop-pop-pop-pop-pop.
Before he knew what was happening, parade-goers from further down the route began running towards the 47-year-old and his family, shouting for someone with a gun.
“It was chaos,” Shapiro recalled. “People didn’t immediately know where the gunfire was coming from or if the gunman was in front of you or behind you chasing you.”
For many people, the mass shooting that left at least seven people dead and more than 30 injured has heightened the fear that any place, any event in the US can become dangerous or deadly, even though most gun violence is personal. . Highland Park is one of the safest cities in the country, and the 4th of July is one of the most American holidays. Even before Monday’s killings, some people were already tense, questioning whether to brave large gatherings, looking over their shoulders during even the most mundane activities, from grocery shopping to going to school or going to the movies.
But when shots rang out in Highland Park on Monday, all that most people at the July 4th parade knew was first confusion, then terror as they looked for a safe place to hide or any way to escape.
The atmosphere along the short but crowded parade route was terrific as the children marched around 9:40 a.m., said Vivian Visconti, a 19-year Highland Park Park District counselor who helped organize and direct the children’s parade.
Parents and others in attendance smiled and waved at the first group, while Visconti instructed the younger children to keep moving if they slowed down or momentarily deviated from the designated route.
“It was fun and fun and hot,” she recalled of walking through the Central Avenue business district lined with boutiques, cafes and restaurants. On both sides of the street, attendees sat on blankets and lawn tables, some snacking on potato chips or cookies as they watched.
It took the kids on bikes no more than 20 minutes to ride the entire parade route, which ended at the bottom of the hill near the park, where a bouncy house was set up for the kids to play in after the ride.
“We were probably one of the few groups to finish the parade,” Visconti said.
One of the reasons the little kids went first was so they could run back up the hill and watch the rest of the parade.
Visconti also moved back up the hill, at the other end of Central Avenue, near the Shapiro family. It was about 10:20 a.m. when she heard several slower booming sounds, immediately followed by 20 loud explosions.
“At first they thought it was blanks, part of the parade,” she said. “But my friend turned to me and said, ‘No, it’s real!'”
After a five-second pause, she heard another series of rapid gunshots. She ran with her friend.
Like most others who heard the gunshots, they never saw the shooter climb a fire escape to perch on top of a row of specialty stores. As he fired, some of the parade participants fell, mortally wounded. Many others lay bleeding or were carried away by family and friends.
Not far from Visconti, Jonathan Garfinkle, 16, of Highland Park, realized he had to leave quickly.
A friend’s dad happened to be passing by in his jeep. Another 15 people were already in the car or holding on to it. He also jumped to the side, giving him a big hug as the car sped away from the center of town.
The staging area for the parade was on St. John’s Avenue, near the parking lot and train station. The floats, bands and politicians headed north a bit, then turned west, down the center.
Greg Gillberg, 45, was on a raft with his wife just minutes from the turnpike when he saw crowds of terrified parade-goers fleeing the avenue. The Highland Park man clearly didn’t hear the gunshots, but he knew they had to run. So he and his wife hastened to where he had left his bicycle nearby; she hopped on the back with him and Gillberg pedaled home as fast as he could.
As he walked past the Highland Park library, Gilberg said he saw dozens of people streaming inside for safety.
The gunshots were much louder on Central Avenue — the parade’s main thoroughfare — where Richard Eisenberg and his wife watched the parade outside an outdoor store. Although they couldn’t see who was shooting or where they were, Isenberg could tell by the sound that the shooter was close.
The pair fled, turning a corner and into a lot full of large dumpsters. They saw a man take his children to one of the dumpsters. He asked the Isenbergs to watch over them while he ran back outside to pick up other relatives who had come with him to the parade.
The couple returned to the scene on Tuesday to try to retrieve their car, which was still in an area cordoned off by police investigating the crime. Isenberg’s wife, who declined to give her name, covered her ears and closed her eyes as she recalled the sound of gunfire.
“I can’t stop hearing it,” she said.
Amid the mayhem, a gunman dressed as a woman slipped into the panic-stricken crowd and escaped for a moment.
For Howard Diamond, 45, of Highland Park, attending the Independence Day Parade every year has been a family tradition.
He was sitting in a recliner with his wife, 9-year-old son and other members of his extended family when he heard loud bangs about 500 feet away. Someone said it was fireworks. But he said he knew better, telling everyone they were shot and needed to move now.
“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!” – he remembered the screams.
Speaking Tuesday from outside a police cordon on Central Avenue, he pointed to a baby blue miniature car that had been overturned amid the uproar the day before, saying it belonged to his daughter-in-law’s son. He was hoping to take his cell phone, but was told he couldn’t because it was still a crime scene.
Unsure of the best escape route, the Shapiro family decided to run all the way to their house next door. Shapiro scooped up his daughter in his arms and they ran away as fast as they could, leaving the strollers and lawn chairs behind. Later that night, his 2-year-old child woke up screaming, Shapiro said, as he returned downtown Tuesday to pick up items the family had dropped off.
“He is too young to understand what happened. But he knows that something bad happened,” he said. “It’s horrible.”
Burnett reported from Chicago. Associated Press reporter Martha Irwin contributed.
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