The back-to-school buying season filled the bustling Walmart in El Paso, Texas, on a typical Saturday, and shoppers included many who’d come from the city’s Mexico neighbor, Ciudad Juárez, across the border a mile away.
Retired U.S. Army sergeant Arturo Benavides, 60, and his wife Patricia, 63, usually bought their groceries on Sundays after church. But they switched their routine to hit the store that morning. With Arturo waiting in the checkout line, Patricia rested nearby on a bench by the restroom — the short distance between life and death as, just after 10:30 a.m., a gunman with a rifle opened fire inside the store.
Someone shoved Patricia into a bathroom stall — “She doesn’t know who saved her,” says Arturo’s great-niece Jacklin Luna — but in the chaos Arturo was lost. By the time police arrived and the shooter surrendered, he was among 22 people fatally shot, with another 27 wounded.
Thirteen hours later, the carnage of America’s mass epidemic of gun violence would unfold again in another city.
The Saturday-night revelers in Dayton, Ohio’s popular Oregon District entertainment zone included Holly Redman, 31, and her friend James Williams, 50, who’d just left the crowded Ned Peppers bar around 1 a.m. “We walked across the street and into a bar called Newcom’s, and as soon as we walked in,” says Williams, “the gunfire started going off.”
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Outside on the street, another gunman fatally shot nine people, including his own sister, and injured at least 27 others before he was shot dead by police in less than a minute. “There were so many on the ground,” Redman says in this week’s issue of PEOPLE. “It was awful.”
The loss of 31 lives in back-to-back tragedies led the FBI to warn it “remains concerned that U.S.-based domestic violence extremists could become inspired by these and previous high-profile attacks to engage in similar acts of violence,” including what the agency termed “perpetrators of hate crimes.”
For the survivors and witnesses themselves, their accounts recall the terror and tears, heartbreak and heroism — and the haunting images they can’t shake.
There was Dion Green, 37, whose father, 57-year-old Derrick Fudge, died in his arms in Dayton.
“The bullets stopped. I tried to get up. I did get up. My dad, he didn’t,” Green tells PEOPLE, recounting his dad’s last moments. “I told him I love him. Man, he was a great father.”
Maria Lopez, 27, was shopping in Walmart in El Paso and initially didn’t realize the popping noises she was hearing was gunfire. But then the full scope of the horror became clear.
“The screams were worse than the gunfire,” she tells PEOPLE. “I keep hearing the screams.”
John Olga, 61, drove his wife 61-year-old Gloria Irma Marquez to the store and agreed to meet her at the McDonald’s in the store.
“Two minutes later I heard the ‘boom boom,'” Olga says.
He called his wife to tell her to move away from the shooting. “She never answered,” he says. “I waited by the car, hoping she ran out the other way. They didn’t tell us anything until Sunday morning.”
Jimmy Villatoro’s friends were shot in El Paso. He rushed to the scene to try to save their children.
“They were in a panic, they were crying. There were bodies on the floor. It was not a scene a child should have witnessed. There was desperation in their eyes. They just wanted help. The screaming and the yelling, it stays with me. Thank God I was able to get them out.”
Along with its cover story, PEOPLE has released its updated call to action, with contact information for all voting members of Congress so you can call your representative to express your views on what can be done to stop gun violence.
• With reporting by ELAINE ARADILLAS, STEVE HELLING, K.C. BAKER, GREG HANLON, CHRIS HARRIS, DIANE HERBST, WENDY GROSSMAN KANTOR, CAITLIN KEATING, SUSAN KEATING, CHRISTINE PELISEK, HARRIET SOKMENSUER and SUSAN YOUNG