As gunshots rang out and glass shattered all around, staffers at the Capital Gazette cowered under desks, fearing for their lives.
Except Wendi Winters. A witness said she stood up, grabbed a trash can and a recycling bin, and charged the gunman.
For her heroism, the 65-year-old woman paid with her life. But several staffers at the Annapolis, Maryland, newspaper say she saved theirs.
Survivors of last month’s attack shared the account of that day in a story the Capital ran over the weekend.
Eleven employees were in the office that day. Six made it out alive. And those who did are thanking Winters.
“She may have distracted him enough that he forgot about me because I definitely stood up and was looking at the door,” sales consultant Janel Cooley told the Capital. “I’m sure he wasn’t expecting … anyone to charge him.”
She bought time for her colleagues
When a gunman barged into the Capital Gazette newsroom on June 28, he shattered the newsroom’s glass door with a shotgun.
Reporters Rachael Pacella and Phil Davis and intern Anthony Messenger were at their desks toward the back of the newsroom when the shooting started.
Pacella hid under a desk. Davis went for the floor. Messenger headed for the back door, which was barricaded, trapping them all inside.
The shots kept coming. The bangs kept coming. Then, they stopped.
In the moment, employees didn’t know why. But it gave them just enough time to get up and take refuge between filing cabinets until the shooting was over.
Cooley told the Capital that Winters shouted something like, “No! You stop that!” or “You get out of here!”
Photojournalist Paul Gillespie remembers hearing Winters yell “No!” during the rampage.
Pacella and Davis didn’t see Winters move toward the attacker. They only saw her body in the walkway. But Davis said that key pause could have been Winters confronting the shooter, buying them the precious moments they needed to get to safety.
“I think that Wendi doing what she did served as enough of a distraction that maybe he didn’t see us,” Pacella told the Capital. “I absolutely think that Wendi Winters saved my life.”
Loved ones remember her as a hero
Winters, an editor and community reporter and a mother of four, was one of five employees slain in the attack.
Editor Rob Hiaasen, editorial page editor Gerald Fischman, editor and sports writer John McNamara and sales assistant Rebecca Smith also lost their lives in the shooting. Jarrod Ramos, 38, who allegedly plotted the strike because of a long-held grudge against the newspaper, is charged with their deaths.
Winters spent her days writing about local events or interviewing teens who deserved recognition for good deeds. Weeks after she took an active-shooter training class at her church, she made the ultimate sacrifice, said her son, Phoenix Geimer.
But it sounds exactly like her, he said.
“In an act of extraordinary courage, she gave her heart, and she gave her last breath, and she gave her final eight pints of blood to the defense of the free press and in defense of her family at the Capital,” Geimer said in an account by the Washington Post.
“She died fighting for what she believed in. My mom is an American hero, and we all have so much to live up to,” he said.
In an editorial published Tuesday, the Capital Gazette staff said Winters should be nominated for the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the nation’s highest civilian honor – for her heroism.
“Wendi died protecting her friends, but also in defense of her newsroom from a murderous assault. Wendi died protecting freedom of the press,” the editorial says.