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South L.A. shooting leads to an unexpected bond

Trained in first aid for an assignment in Iraq, a Los Angeles Times reporter winds up helping a drive-by shooting victim right here in the Southland.

August 10, 2009|Molly Hennessy-Fiske

I looked into the woman's face. Her large brown eyes widened with fear. She winced in pain. Blood spurted from her thighs.

I dropped my purse and knelt beside her on the asphalt.

Reporters are trained to remain detached, to observe and record without interfering. But the circumstances that Saturday afternoon compelled me to reach out and help this stranger, the victim of a drive-by shooting in South Los Angeles.

From that chance encounter, a bond would grow between us -- fleeting but powerful. Later, I would learn about her life, that she was a working single mother who had just moved to the high desert to escape gang violence. But at that moment, all I could think about was how to stop the bleeding.

Someone had ripped up a white T-shirt and tied the strips of cloth around her legs, below her shorts, as tourniquets. I put my hands on the bloodstained rags and pressed. She cringed but did not complain.

I had taken a first aid course before going to Baghdad on assignment in 2006. I hadn't needed to use the training in Iraq. I never imagined I would need it in Los Angeles.

I remembered I was supposed to make sure the victim was alert and her airways clear. I asked her if she could breathe. She said yes but that the sun was boiling the pavement beneath her.

"I need to move," she moaned, tugging at her pink tank top. "I got to get out of here!"

Several people offered to carry her into the shade. But I had been taught never to move an injured person unless absolutely necessary. Her blood was already coating the ground.

"How many times have you been shot?" I asked, my voice trembling.

Twice, she said, once in each leg.

"Do you have any other injuries?"

No, she said.

I looked at her face, now shining with sweat. I could see she was worried the shooters would return.

So was I.

--

I had gone to South Los Angeles to report on a different shooting, one that had claimed someone's life the night before in the same spot.

On Friday, July 10, L.A. County sheriff's deputies had shot and killed Woodrow Player Jr., 22, a parolee and father of three who had ties to the Crips gang. Deputies shot Player when he reached for his waistband during a foot chase. What they had believed was a gun turned out to be a cellphone.

The next morning, Player's friends set up a memorial of votive candles and helium balloons in the alley where he had been killed, off Imperial Highway west of Vermont Avenue. The balloons were blue and black, Crips colors.

Player's relatives had gathered in a driveway that connected the alley to Imperial Highway. They were tearful and angry, shouting that he did not have to die. I walked over to talk to them.

It was a hot weekend. There were few trees and little shade.

Suddenly, I heard a popping sound. A Times photographer working with me pointed back toward the memorial.

"Look," he said. "It's so hot, the balloons are popping."

I hung around for a few more hours, interviewing neighbors and observing the scene. Eventually, the photographer left, advising me to stay out of the alley.

I saw why. A crowd had gathered, mostly young men wearing Crips colors. A teenager, his upper arms covered with Crips tattoos, sprayed a wall with graffiti. Deputies cruised by without stopping.

I headed south across Imperial Highway, looking for a former girlfriend of Player's. I was about a block south of Imperial when I heard popping again. This time it wasn't balloons.

I knew, because the last time I heard this sound, I was in Iraq.

I turned and walked toward the sound, dialing 911 on my cellphone. The call didn't go through.

"Was that shooting?" I asked a group of men leaning against a fence.

They just stared.

"Sounded like it," said an elderly man walking past. "I'm going home. You should, too."

I called my editor with the news: "There's been another shooting."

I stared across Imperial Highway at the driveway I had just left, about 50 feet away. I could see several bodies sprawled on the ground. Traffic slowed to take in the spectacle.

"I have to go," I said, and rushed across the street.

--

As I pressed on the tourniquets, trying to stop the bleeding, my hands trembled. I tried to steady them. The woman complained that the hot pavement was burning her legs.

"When it burns, just squeeze my arm," I told her.

A man took off his shirt and helped her sit on it. Someone else called 911.

Minutes later, the first deputy arrived, followed by a dozen others. I listened as they questioned the woman, asking her to spell her name: Rashaun Williams.

I wanted to write it down, but my notebook was tucked away in my purse. When paramedics arrived, I stepped back and a deputy strung yellow police tape between us. I handed him my business card and asked him to pass it to Williams. She waved to me as paramedics carried her to an ambulance headed for Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood.

I returned to the newsroom and wrote a short article for the next day's paper about community reaction to Player's death and the drive-by shooting. It ran on Page A28.

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