For years, master carpenter Greg Zanis has traveled across the country to create and deliver individualized memorial crosses, free of charge. Today, he’s been called upon to help the communities reeling from deadly mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.
Zanis, 68, says the message he aims to send with his memorials is simple: “Today it’s the first day they get to go to heaven… they’re not suffering anymore. We’re going to see them again.”
He prepared 20 crosses for the people who were killed when a 21-year-old suspect opened fire in an El Paso Walmart on Saturday morning. Dozens more were injured, and the death toll had risen since the shooting to 22 as of Monday afternoon, according to police.
Zanis said he was contacted by the sister of one of the victims, who wanted him to make a cross for her brother. But he told ABC News that he wouldn't go without creating a memorial for everyone.
“Immediately when I heard about it, I made these crosses, I made them fast,” he said.
He said he drove all day Sunday from his home in Illinois to El Paso, arriving at 4 a.m. Monday. For the first time, he also created 26 “memorials” honoring the survivors as well.
He described them as 18-inch blank, cut-out style men with their arms outstretched, holding hands. They are “distressed-looking," he said. "They look injured, but they’re standing up and alive."
Just before he spoke to ABC News, he replaced a survivor’s memorial with another cross.
“I’ve never done that before… It’s just heart-wrenching. I don’t know what to make of all this right now,” he said. “I’m losing a piece of my heart.”
Zanis will also travel to Dayton, Ohio on Monday, where nine people were killed and 27 were injured in another mass shooting over the weekend.
He said he was struggling to help with the dual shootings. With “two states on my shoulder...I can’t tell you how hard it is to do one on top of the other.”
He said he normally is able to go home and “decompress” between his trips.
“I go to God. I don’t mind sharing my heart with the world and the country,” he said.
After Zanis' father-in-law was killed in Aurora in 1996, he said he started offering to make crosses for anyone, anytime, and to deliver them free of charge. He also makes symbols of other religions.
One of his first projects was for the victims of the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, where 12 students and a teacher were killed in 1999.
Zanis retired from his carpentry job in 2016, but has since visited cities across the U.S. to provide crosses for mass shooting victims.
Last year, he traveled to Parkland, Florida, where 17 students and staff were shot dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018. Then there was Santa Fe High School in Texas, where 10 people were killed in May 2018.
He built crosses for the 49 victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando in 2016. He went to Las Vegas a year after for the 2017 shooting that killed 58. And he went to the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in the wake of the 2018 shooting that killed 11.
"That was the first time I only made Jewish stars instead of crosses," Zanis told ABC News in February.
In his own hometown of Aurora, Illinois, five employees were killed in a mass shooting in Febryary at the Henry Pratt manufacturing plant.
"This is the last thing I wanted, for this to happen so close to my house," he said at the time.
Zanis has tried in the past to work anonymously, explaining that "these family members, they want their family member to be remembered… It's not about me."
His selflessness, even as he deals with his own loss — his daughter died of a drug overdose in January 2018.
“I haven’t had a moment of comfort since then. I’m comforting other people, I think,” he said.
His aim, he says, is simple.
"I've got nothing with politics, I'm not a church guy [and] I'm not a gun guy," he said. "I'm a guy about the heart. Our heart is broken here in America. I want everybody to know I love them."