A year ago, Gilbert Serna became one of the El Paso Walmart heroes and somewhat of a media celebrity after he helped usher customers to safety during a gunman’s rampage.
He and Lasonya Pickard, an assistant manager, helped lead more than 100 customers to safety inside metal cargo containers in the back of the Cielo Vista-area Walmart store during the shooting, he said. He also helped other customers outside the store escape to the nearby Sam’s Club.
That brought him worldwide news media attention, leaving him little time to cope with the shooting’s immediate, emotional impact, he said.
After that, Serna, 37, went through some tough weeks.
“I couldn’t sleep, lot of anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares. I was not feeling good,” Serna said. Two of his co-workers told him weeks after the shooting that they had similar problems, he said.
Ongoing counseling sessions and support from his wife and two daughters have helped him recover from that day, but bouts of anxiety linger, he said.
Returning to work good medicine
The best therapy seems to have been to get back to the Cielo Vista store and work.
About a month-and-a-half after the shooting, he returned to the remodeled store to help get it ready for its Nov. 14 reopening.
“I got to work, got out of my car, went in the store with a couple friends (co-workers). The store was gutted, it was completely empty. We knew we had a task — to put the store back together, It took a lot of anxiety away from me.”
Serna is one of about 400 employees at the store, which was one of the busiest Walmarts in the nation prior to the shooting. It’s still busy, but the COVID-19 pandemic has cut its operating hours and reduced sales.
He was one of about 80 to 100 employees who were at work that tragic Saturday morning, when an estimated 3,000 customers were shopping.
The shooting resulted in 23 deaths, including a man who died in April, and dozens injured, including two Walmart employees. No Walmart employees were killed.
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Employees “have come back strong,” store manager says
Serna said he’s pretty much healed from that day, but still has lingering bouts of anxiety — sometimes when he talks about the shooting, or if he’s in large crowds, which, he noted, hasn’t been a problem during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He’s not sure about the state of his co-workers one year after the shooting because “we really don’t talk about it much,” he said.
“The other day there was a test for a fire alarm (at the store) and some people got scared, some employees. I’m sure (there’s) still some anxiety” lingering among employees, he said.
Robert Evans, 45, the Cielo Vista Walmart store manager for 7 ½ years, said he thinks most of the employees have recovered from the shooting, with the help of counseling, time off, and “various support teams.”
“I believe they have come back very strong,” he said.
Pandemic poses another test
However, that strength has been tested further by having to now work in the COVID-19 pandemic, which has brought added stress, Evans said.
“It’s been a challenge,” Evans said. It’s “required us to do a lot of quick pivoting and adjustments in order to meet our associates’ and customers’ well being.”
Evans also became a hero Aug. 3 after he saw the gunman shooting people outside the store and ran into the store to warn his employees and customers and direct people to exits.
While memories of that day pop up occasionally as he goes about his workday, he has no lingering effects from the shooting, and needed no counseling, he said.
Evans doesn’t know how many of the store’s employees sought counseling services, which, he noted, Walmart has provided for employees.
Only a few of the store’s 400 employees transferred to other stores after the shooting, he said. He knows of no one who quit because of the shooting, he said.
Hero label shunned for a time
Serna, Evans and other Walmart employees who took actions to help save people during the shooting have been labeled heroes by Walmart officials and the community.
Serna’s 4-year-old daughter calls him “the Walmart hero of the Walmart shooting,” he said.
Serna went through a period when he shunned that label, saying, “I wish I wasn’t a hero, I wish this tragedy never happened,” he remembered.
That changed shortly after the Walmart reopened in November, when a customer came and told him “there’s going to be a lot of families celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas as a family because of what you did. You’re an El Paso hero. That made me feel good.”
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He’s had others thank him since the shooting, including some people who he helped usher to safety, he said.
Cashier wants to forget shooting
Irma Cano, a Walmart cashier who locked eyes with the gunman before leading customers out of the store during the shooting, said she’s recovered from that day.
“It’s something you don’t forget about. Once in a while it comes back. But it’s not like it used to be,” she said.
Cano was featured in two El Paso Times stories about her experiences during the shooting and working during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I prefer to forget about the shooting, and not talk about it anymore,” Cano said.
Both Serna and Cano, long-time employees at the store, continue to work there.
Serna is a supervisor at the store, where he’s worked all but one of the almost 19 years he’s been employed by Walmart. His brother also works there, but was not working when the shooting occurred.
Anniversary will be special workday
Serna and Evans, the store manager, plan to be working at the store Aug. 3, just as they were on that tragic day a year ago.
But the day will be different because the store will be closed until noon to allow for a private commemoration at the shooting memorial in the Walmart parking lot.
Employees, Walmart executives, and families of the shooting victims will attend the remembrance from 7 a.m.- noon.
The public can visit the memorial after the store opens, Evans said.
Plaques bearing the names of the 23 people who died in the shooting will be placed on each side of the memorial, he said. Those will become a permanent part of the Grand Candela memorial.
“I expect it will be an emotional day for not just Walmart (employees), but the community as well,” Evans said.
El Paso Strong diminishes
Evans said the shooting “brought us to be more united as a community and as an organization (within the Walmart store).”
“I can’t thank them (community) enough for supporting us emotionally and personally and as a business,” Evans said.
Serna also saw the togetherness and kindness of El Paso Strong after the shooting. But that’s diminished during the year, he said.
That’s partly due to the attention taken by the COVID-19 pandemic, and by the growing racial and political divisiveness he’s seen, especially on social media, since the shooting, Serna said.
He also doesn’t foresee the end of the tragic violence that gripped El Paso a year ago.
“The shootings will continue to happen. Thoughts and prayers will go out, and we’ll go back to live our normal lives again until the next shooting,” Serna said.
Vic Kolenc may be reached at 546-6421; firstname.lastname@example.org; @vickolenc on Twitter.