It should have been one of the proudest days as a parent for John Persons. But 90 seconds before the president of Tops Friendly Markets was to watch his son receive his college diploma, his cellphone started buzzing with the worst news imaginable.
His company's executive vice president for operations was on the line, telling him a shooting had just occurred at their only store on the east side of Buffalo, New York. While the horrific details of the May 14 mass shooting were not immediately clear, Persons said he was told enough to prompt him to leave his son's graduation in Alfred, New York, and drive 2 1/2 hours back to Buffalo.
"I recognized the need to be present, to help assess and coordinate and understand exactly what was happening first with all of our associates, and secondly of how I could be of assistance to the community," Persons said.
In an interview with ABC News, Persons opened up about his company's response to the massacre and the challenges of opening the store targeted in one of the most underdeveloped neighborhoods in Buffalo, and reopening it in the aftermath of the rampage.
Tensions have arisen in particular over a compensation fund that gives different amounts of money to people depending on whether they are family of people who died or workers who were present at the time. And some loved ones of those killed say that the company has not done enough to help them.
"It was a tough balancing act, not just that first day, but that first week, the first month and it still is a tough balancing act," Persons said.
Tops market, 'my 1st and only job'
While in high school, Persons said he began working at a Tops store in a Buffalo suburb, starting as a part-time grocery cart wrangler. He grew up in the business, he said, climbing from cashier to stock boy and eventually store manager. In 2016, he was named president of the 60-year-old, 150-store company.
"It is my first job and my only job," said Persons, who has worked at Tops for 38 years.
In the early 2000s, elected officials approached Tops about building a grocery store in the Cold Spring neighborhood of Buffalo's east side. Besides a few small corner stores, the predominantly Black neighborhood did not have a full-service grocery store and residents were forced to drive or take public transportation several miles to get to one.
It wasn't an easy sell to bring a supermarket to an underdeveloped area of high unemployment, low homeownership, high crime and lack of education, said Darius Pridgen, the president of the city's Common Council, Buffalo's equivalent of a city council.
"It took a lot to bring Tops (to the east side), it took a lot of community pressure, a lot of agreements for Tops to come," said Pridgen, an east side resident and pastor of one of the area's largest churches, True Bethel Baptist Church.
He said Tops was the only major grocery store chain to consider the request from city leaders to build on the east side and the store opened in 2003.
"We opened to a great deal of fanfare and a very warm reception. The community engaged us right away," said Persons, adding that many of the store's workers are from the local community.
May 14 shooting: 'beyond our comprehension'
Payton Gendron, the 19-year-old suspect in the Buffalo mass shooting, is accused of planning for months what federal prosecutors called a racially motivated attack – killing 10 Black people and wounding three others.
Gendron has been charged in both federal and state courts with multiple counts of murder and hate crimes. He has pleaded not guilty in both cases.
"It was something beyond our comprehension how someone could be that filled with rage and hate and perpetrate just a horrible act like that," Persons said.
The attack came after several shootings at retail chain stores nationwide, including the August 2019 mass shooting at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart that left 23 people, most of them Latinos, dead in what prosecutors said was a hate crime.
"I think the idea of this type of attack has always been present and we had protocols in place to help our store team deal with such an event and we continue to have those protocols in place," Persons said. "I would tell you that even with that type of training, even with that type of awareness, I believe it's very difficult for anyone to actually deal with an event like that when it's actually happening."
Tensions arise in the aftermath of the Tops massacre
One way Tops attempted to help in the immediate aftermath of the attack, Persons said, was by seeding $500,000 to create the Buffalo 5/14 Survivors Fund. In a partnership with the National Compassion Fund, a group that provides a way for the public to give directly to victims of mass casualty crimes, the 5/14 Survivors Fund collected donations from more than 13,000 people worldwide.
Persons said Tops donated an additional $250,000 to the fund, which grew to $6.4 million that is now being distributed to 169 individuals, including the families of those killed.
But the manner in which the fund is being dispersed has caused tension with some Tops employees. However, Persons said that after seeding the fund, Tops took a hands-off approach to how it was managed and distributed.
"We wanted to make sure that we weren’t managing. We wanted to initiate it and give it to the community," Persons said. "It's very important that this fund be administered by people who are actually in the community, people who understood the event, people who understood Buffalo and understood the community of east Buffalo."
"We literally did not have a seat at the table. They didn't include us," Tops employee Fragrance Harris Stanfield told ABC News, referring to herself and other Tops workers who were at the store when the shooting erupted and survived.
Harris Stanfield, who was working at the Jefferson Avenue store along with her 20-year-old daughter said she had to run for her life and panicked when she became separated from her daughter in the chaos that ensued.
She said she believes workers who were present and survived the shooting should have gotten $50,000 each and that the $9,500 they received minimizes the psychological trauma. While Harris Stanfield has not returned to work and is receiving workman's compensation, she said some of her Tops colleagues had to resume their jobs out of financial necessity before they healed.
"The fact is we're not looking for a handout, it's just that we shouldn't have to constantly suffer and scrape and plead, and asked and fill out a thousand pounds of paperwork just to pay our bills. And $9,500 will not take care of anybody's family for a year. Nobody's. I looked at that and said this is like my salary for eight weeks," she said.
A 27-member steering committee of mostly community leaders -- including two Tops executives and a union representative for Tops workers -- dispersed payments from the fund after setting a list of protocols.
Jeffrey Dion, executive director of the National Compassion Fund, said his group has organized 23 survivors' funds dating back to the 2012 mass shooting at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater that left 12 people dead and 70 injured. He said that prior to the Aurora shooting, other funds had been created but left out people who were psychologically traumatized.
"One of the foundational principles of the National Compassion Fund is that we work to include psychological trauma in every event possible, in every fund that we do," Dion told ABC News.
Tops' response to the rampage
Persons said that in addition to seeding the 5/14 Survivors Fund, Tops continued to pay its workers at the Jefferson Avenue store during the two months the market was closed following the shooting and provided counseling and regular group therapy sessions at a library near the store.
He said employees who haven't returned to work are still being paid through workman's compensation or some other capacity, and a few have taken jobs at other Tops stores.
The store reopened on July 15 following a major renovation.
But some loved ones of those killed in the shooting told ABC News they feel Tops has not done enough.
Persons, however, said he has reached out to all of the families in an attempt to address their concerns, but declined to discuss the details of those conversations. He said Tops representatives attended all of the funerals.
"We reached out to every family and there was, generally speaking, collaborative support. We did everything we could," Persons said. "There were some very emotional conversations, and some very difficult conversations."
Tragedy now 'part of Tops' history'
Persons said many of the store's employees came back to work with the attitude they were not going to allow the suspected gunman to win, and coined the phrase "Jefferson strong," which they printed on T-shirts and used in chants during therapy sessions.
He noted that one of the positive things to come out of the tragedy was that Tops was able to reengage with the east side community, and "reestablish the relationships we had with so many great community organizations."
While Tops could have permanently closed the store and walked away from the neighborhood, Persons said the company, instead, has re-dedicated itself to "continue to be a better neighbor."
"We have come to realize that this event, this tragedy is part of Tops' history and it's certainly part of the history of that store and the store team. We don't shy away from that," Persons said. "So, if we want to remember anything about these tragic events, in my mind, it's how we made some good out of this horrible, horrible tragedy."