Story by Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN
Photographs by Mark Felix for CNN
Dayton, Ohio (CNN) — When Greg Zanis travels to the sites of mass shootings, he brings a handmade cross for each victim, but he also carries a few extra to hand out as gifts.
Not this time.
“They were trying to buy them from me in El Paso, but I need them here,” the Crosses for Losses founder said as he turned his full-size Nissan pickup, its bed packed with nine crosses, onto Fifth Street in Dayton.
This marked the first time Zanis had to drive from one shooting location directly to another. After a gunman killed 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and another shooter took nine more lives several hours later in Dayton, Zanis began a journey of roughly 3,500 miles.
CNN joined the 68-year-old Wednesday near the Indiana border on the last leg of his trip. He’d already driven 1,500 miles from his home in Aurora, Illinois, to El Paso, then another 1,600 miles to Dayton, despite collapsing Monday in South Texas’ 101-degree heat.
“It’s the hardest week I’ve ever had in my life,” he said as he trucked east on Interstate 70. “I go out all the time, but not like this.”
Since 1996, when he found his father-in-law murdered, Zanis has built 26,680 crosses, he said on the drive. He would add nine names to his orange notebook after Dayton, he said.
He estimates 21,000 are shooting victims. He’s also taken his white crosses to the aftermath of tornadoes and wildfires, bus and boat crashes, and to Martha’s Vineyard after JFK Jr. and his relatives died in a plane crash. He took five in February to the Henry Pratt Company after a shooting unfolded in his hometown.
Asked how he staves off sadness, he said he doesn’t.
“I break down. You’re going to see me cry. I don’t mind,” he said. “I hug victims all the time, and I try to be strong, but I’m really not. I’m OK with that. I feel so good afterwards because I’ve done something.”
Zanis is a religious man. He grew up Greek Orthodox and spent many years as a Baptist, though he’s quick to chuckle about his delinquent days “smoking pot and sleeping in the van” in Key West and racing his Pontiac Trans Am in the cross-country Cannonball Run of Burt Reynolds fame.
The shootings, he believes — and he knows the belief is unpopular — are the consequence of a country that forgot God, beginning in 1962 with the US Supreme Court decision to outlaw official prayer in school, he said.
“When you take God out, why should God help us?” he asked. “I think it’s real simple: a second generation of godless people. We don’t have to have a conscience. … You think any of these people were men of any kind of faith who do the shootings? No.”
The victims’ religions, however, don’t matter to Zanis. He scans their obituaries to determine whether he should bring crosses, Stars of David or crescent moons. He’s memorialized Buddhists and atheists, as well. He never pushes Christianity, he said.
“I’ve never been an advocate or a loudmouth because I feel that people will point at me and say, ‘Look, he‘s a religious zealot.’ No, no, no, I’m a workaholic. God didn’t give me one thing he gave everyone else. What do you think that is? Well, he did not give me a lazy bone. Everyone’s got one. I don’t.”
But did he have a message for those gathering as he removed each cross from the truck bed and wrote the names of the victims on each one?
“I don’t want to alienate people,” he said. “I’m here for the victims only.”
He spent about three hours accommodating the pack of journalists who rushed to his truck, granting interviews as he placed each cross in front of a growing memorial along Fifth Street.
Without a shred of fanfare or any public pronouncements — but plenty of hugs for anyone who wanted one — Zanis packed up and got back in his truck.
“I’m going home to my own bed,” he told a photographer before abruptly backing out of the parking lot and starting the 330-mile drive home.
Photo editor: Brett Roegiers