How are you wired? What would you do if faced with a life-and-death situation — a crazed gunman firing indiscriminately at a crowd, a suicidal hijacker taking over a plane, a rampaging fire engulfing your neighbor’s house, a speeding car whose accelerator pedal is pinned to the floor? The way you respond says a lot about you as a person.
Granted, these are not the kinds of situations a typical entrepreneur faces, but by looking at those who successfully overcome such enormous obstacles, where the odds were stacked against their very survival, we can draw lessons that perhaps may apply to less tragic circumstances.
That is the crux of The Big Takeaway, our new Pando series. In Part 1 of our series, we look at the heroes from the Gabby Giffords shooting.
January 8, 2011 — Tucson, Arizona
Patricia Maisch fell to the ground the instance she heard several loud pops. Later other heroes that day would tell reporters they thought it might have been balloons popping or fireworks, which had been legalized in Tucson several months earlier. But Maisch knew better. She recognized the sound of gunshots when she heard them.
The 61-year-old with a crown of gray hair was last in line behind 20 some odd people, there to meet her congresswoman, Rep. Gabrielle Gifford — to shake her hand, snap a quick picture, and thank her for supporting the stimulus package, which had breathed life into the heating and cooling business she co-owned with her husband. The line snaked from a canopy outside Safeway and into the parking lot, but Maisch didn’t mind the wait. It was a gloriously sunny January day in early 2011, what they call weather in her part of Arizona. She idled away the time eavesdropping on people ahead of her in line.
Then the shooting started and Maisch found herself on the ground. The people Maisch overheard chatting had hit the deck, too, some riddled with bullets. There was blood, people screaming, utter panic. Maisch realized she could be next and debated retreating in the opposite direction to distract the shooter. Instead, she pressed her body into the crevice created by Safeway’s foundation and the pavement and tried to disappear. Helpless, she fully expected to be shot and wondered what it would feel like.
Bill Badger, a former army colonel, was also near the back of the line when he saw the gunman firing at people in chairs with a Glock 9mm, where the congresswoman had been seated. He attended the event with his wife to ask Giffords about Obamacare’s impact on military spouses. Badger, 76, had joined the South Dakota National Guard when he was 17 and amassed 38 years of military training. But he’d never witnessed a massacre like this. The assailant kept firing and firing, aiming at anyone in his path.
The assailant was nearing the end of his 31-bullet clip when he paused in front of Badger, taking dead aim with his pistol. Badger threw himself to the ground and a bullet skimmed the side of his head. He lay on his stomach amazed he was still alive when he realized the gunman had stopped firing. Badger staggered to his feet and was face to face with the murderer, who was removing another magazine from his pocket to reload.
Just then Roger Salzgeber, 62, who was eight feet from Giffords when she was shot, raced to the gunman. Salzgeber was volunteering for her campaign and stopped by the event to exchange greetings. Before retiring he owned a cactus and suckling nursery in Tucson and now raises Australian Shepherd dogs. Waiting to speak with Giffords he had been talking about tractors with one of Giffords’ aides, Gabriel Zimmerman, when the shooting started. Salzgeber hit the ground while Zimmerman ran to the congresswoman and was killed. He was, Salzgeber would later say, the last person the aide ever talked to.
The fact that Salzgeber had never received combat training didn’t stop him. While others retreated into the parking lot at the first hint of trouble Salzgeber picked himself up and ran toward the source of the mayhem. He grabbed the gunman from behind, straightening out his arm while Badger grabbed the killer’s other arm and tripped him. They all tumbled to earth.
Suddenly petite Pat Maisch had company on the ground. Next to her: The murderer, who had landed in a heap on his right side, and two men desperately trying to prevent him from killing again.
Salzgeber twisted Loughner’s left hand behind his back while the other was out-stretched under his head. His right hand was still reaching for the gun and the opposite was grasping for the fully loaded magazine.
Badger yelled to anyone who could help, “Get the magazine, get the gun!”
Maisch popped to her knees when she heard Badger’s call. She found herself positioned at the small of the gunman’s back and tore the thick block of ammunition from his hand.
Thus disarmed, the man the world would come to know as Jared Loughner continued to kick his legs, and Maisch feared he might break free. She placed one knee on each of his ankles and held him down. Badger maintained a chokehold under the killer’s chin while Salzgeber pressed on his neck with his knee. Badger worried about suffocating the assailant and advised Salzgerber to ease up. He did, grudgingly.
A few minutes later Maisch switched with another man to retrieve paper towels to make a compress for Badger’s bleeding head. She carried the block of ammo into the Safeway with her. The police finally arrived. It had taken 10 minutes but felt like an eternity.
In the end, the 23-year-old Loughner killed six people in his murderous rampage, including an eight-year-old girl, and wounded 13 others, most notably Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, whom he shot in the brain.
But if it weren’t for these three people, these heroes, Loughner, who pleaded guilty to the rampage and will spend the rest of his life in prison, would have killed many more.
So what lessons can we take from this harrowing experience? For one, practically all of us will face moments when things look bad. You run a startup and can’t make payroll, you don’t know how your company can survive, your investors are clamoring for results, your customers up in arms. Perhaps your business partners piss you off and every email results in a major hassle—or worse. Maybe you confront only two choices, and choosing poorly could mean the end of your business. Maybe your business needs to pivot to survive. Or maybe you need to fire your Chief Technology Officer and bring on someone else.
Whatever it is, you need to act, and need to it without hesitation. Waiting for a better idea to emerge might mean it’s too late.
“Some people are wired one way and some people are wired another,” Salzgeber says. “You don’t know until you’re faced with death.”
When you do, whether it’s your death, the death of someone you love, friends, family, or the end of your business, how will you react?
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]