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Hughes, Witness to Tragedy, A Healing Journey

Photo courtesy of Hailey Owens
Photo courtesy of Hailey Owens

By: Athletic Communications Assistant, Louie Abounader

BEREA, Ohio - Life is precious. We are constantly reminded to savor every moment, to cherish our loved ones, and to live in the now. The simple, yet unequivocal truth is that we do not know which day, hour, or minute will be our last.  Senior Baldwin Wallace University student-athlete Kasey Hughes (Springboro) confronted that undeniable truth and lived to tell the story.

At 1:05 a.m. on August 4, 2019, a man opened fire at the entrance of Ned Peppers Bar in the Oregon Historic District of Dayton with a semi-automatic firearm, fatally shooting nine people and wounding 17 others. Within 32 seconds after the first shots were fired, the gunman was shot dead by law enforcement officers and the story made national headlines.

Hughes, home for the summer, was familiar with the Oregon District, and comfortable socializing in the area.

"My friend Camm texted me, asking if I wanted to go out. We had taken family pictures that night and I already did my hair and makeup so I said sure, let's do it!" Hughes recalled excitedly.

The pair started their night at a bar adjacent to where the shootings took place, then stepped outside to get some air and contemplate where to go next.

"We decided to wait in line for the next bar that was to the right of us. Before we could even turn around to get in line, we heard…" Hughes pauses, beginning to get teary-eyed as she described the gunfire. "I didn't really hear it or react to it. That's the scary part about it; I literally just stood there. My counsellor and I talk about it all time; fight or flight. She always says those are our only two reactions. I found out really quick that mine was freeze, so I guess there was a third option."

By the time Hughes began to realize the events that were unfolding around her, Camm had already taken the initiative to find cover, pulling them both into a door frame separating the two businesses.

"We were stuck in there and I was crying, I was crying so bad."

Fearing the worst, Hughes desperately sought to contact her parents.

"I started calling my dad, but he didn't answer so I left him a hysterical voice mail. So then I hung up and called my mom," Hughes fights back tears again. "I couldn't even talk. I was trying to get the words out, but I had no idea what I was doing. Camm was holding me because I couldn't breathe."

As Hughes struggled to communicate with her mother, she could not fathom what she was witnessing.

"Everyone was yelling and screaming. I saw two people get shot and watched them fall right in front of us. There was a couple right next to us, and I remember holding the girl's hand who was kneeling down with her boyfriend. Then the cops showed up and they told us not to move because the shooter wasn't down yet. It felt like hours of time. We heard so many rapid fire bullets until they told us it was safe to come out."

As soon as they stepped back onto the sidewalk, Hughes began absorbing the reality of the situation.

"They were taping up people who had just been shot in front of us. I looked to my left and the shooter was right there, like 10 feet away, at most. He was down on the ground."

Hughes credits Camm's calm composure for getting them out of the Oregon District physically unscathed. While Hughes was still shaky and hyperventilating, Camm was able to coordinate a gas station meeting spot with Hughes' mother and the two began running as quickly as they could away from the scene.

"To get to my mom, we had to sprint down the street and it felt like a mile. It probably wasn't even that long but we were jumping over those that had fallen and dodging so many people. It was awful."

Despite the chaotic atmosphere, Hughes' mother managed to pick them up at the agreed-upon meeting spot. Once home, it became an entirely new challenge to explain what had just happened before her very eyes.

"I was trying to tell my parents what happened but I didn't even know how to explain it."

Since then, it has been a long journey to recover from the night that forever changed her perspective on life, but Hughes is going through the process one day at a time, and understands that recovery does not happen overnight.

"Being at home was almost like reliving it every day. Even when I go home now, just walking into my house brings it back. So, when we got back from a late summer beach vacation in North Carolina, I came straight up to school because I didn't want to be home."

Back at BW, Hughes returned to accomplishing her goals. The aspiring law student is majoring in public relations and double minoring in both political communications and communications studies. She is the starting point guard on BW's women's basketball team and the executive editor of BW's school newspaper, The Exponent. The two-time Academic All-Ohio Athletic Conference selection is also involved with BW's Center of Innovation and Growth (CIG).

Acknowledging the demanding nature of her daily schedule, Hughes credits her organizational skills and the importance of rest for getting her through the grind.

"It definitely gets overwhelming, but I've always been good at prioritizing the things that are the most important," Hughes began. "I'm a super big organizer and I use my planner religiously. I know school comes first, then basketball, then my social life. So, I like making sure the people that surround me know that I'm not being a mean person, I just need to study, get work done, or catch up on some rest."

"I know I can't stay up late watching Netflix all night if I have an important test or if I have a game or practice the next day," Hughes added with a laugh. "I really understand the importance of sleeping."

Hughes relied on this strategy to help her achieve her academic and athletic goals throughout her collegiate career. But as she took on her senior year with the same recipe for success, she realized that she needed to add some new ingredients.

Still feeling the effects of the Dayton shooting, Hughes found a counsellor that specializes in trauma-related issues, that she regularly sees once a week, along with a monthly psychiatrist check-in.

"My counsellor advises me to try and not hold my feelings on the inside and I think that helps a lot. I've also learned a bunch of breathing techniques to control my anxiety, which had obviously heightened immediately following the incident. They do a really good job of opening your mind, freeing it, then making the trauma not as hard to cope with."

Counselling has also given Hughes an opportunity to reflect on the experience, and to develop gratitude for what didn't happen.

"You experience these weird scenarios replaying in your brain. What if I didn't get pulled by Camm to go in that doorway, like the two people in front of us? What if my reaction was flight instead of freeze, and Camm and I would've pulled each other in opposite directions? We could've easily gotten caught in the line of fire. So, there are a lot of "what if's," but obviously I'm just thankful to be alive."

With a greater appreciation for the fragile nature of life, Hughes is proud of the strides she has made towards her recovery over the last six months.

"I've seen progress. The fact that I'm sitting here with you talking about the whole thing is a huge step for me."

Hughes credits the people who have been right by her side throughout her entire healing process.

"I'd say the number one thing in helping me through this was my parents. They were super awesome about everything. No matter what they may have thought, they were there for me as well as my grandparents and siblings."

Hughes also sought refuge with her BW teammates and the game of basketball, which has always been an escape, but especially now.

"I just feel like time is fleeing so fast, and I don't know if it's because of what happened or because I'm a senior," Hughes began. "Every time I think about basketball ending soon, I get really emotional and I appreciate time a lot more. They know what I've been going through, but this team makes me smile every time I walk onto the court. I've been on teams in the past, whether it was AAU or something else, where we weren't as close. This team is just different. I enjoy being on this team and I have complete trust in all my teammates. They've really been there for me."

With May graduation rapidly approaching, Hughes has her sights set on law school. While post-graduation plans may not be set in stone, Hughes is not stressed about it just yet.

"I'm just living in the moment."