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HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. – David Shapiro and his wife brought their two young kids to enjoy the Independence Day parade in their hometown north of Chicago, snagging a spot in front of a boutique winery.
The children’s parade in downtown Highland Park had already gone by, with about 50 school-age children riding bikes, scooters and tricycles. The musicians of the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band, complete with full drum set and brass section, were starting to play atop a flatbed trailer.
Then came the sound that Shapiro knew did not fit: pop pop pop pop pop.
Before he knew what was happening, parade-goers from further down the route began running toward the 47-year-old and his family, screaming about someone with a gun.
“It was chaos,” Shapiro recalled. “People didn’t know right away where the gunfire was coming from, whether the gunman was in front or behind you chasing you.”
For many people, the mass shooting that killed at least seven people and injured 30 others was yet another reminder that any place, any event in the U.S. can turn dangerous or deadly. Highland Park is one of the country’s safest towns, and July 4th parades among the most American of celebrations. Even before Monday’s killings, some people already were on edge, questioning whether to venture into large gatherings, looking over their shoulders during even the most run-of-the-mill activities, from grocery shopping to going to school or catching a movie.
But as the shots rang out in Highland Park on Monday, all most people at the July 4 parade knew was at first confusion, then terror as they searched for a safe place to hide or any way to escape.
The atmosphere along the short but crowded parade route was exuberant as the kids stepped along around 9:40 a.m., said Vivian Visconti, a 19-year-old Highland Park Park District counselor who helped organize and direct the children’s parade
Parents and other attendees smiled and waved at that first group, while Visconti instructed younger kids to keep moving if they slowed or momentary veered off the designated route.
“It was fun, cheerful, and hot,” she recalled about passing through Central Avenue business district, lined with tony boutiques, cafes and restaurants. On either side of the street, attendees sat on blankets and lawn tables, some snacking on potato chips or cookies as they watched.
It took the children on the cycles no more than 20 minutes to traverse the entire parade route, which ended at the bottom of a hill near the park, where a bouncy house was set up for youngsters to play in after they completed the trek.
“We may have been one of the only groups who finished the parade route,” Visconti said.
One of the reason the smaller kids went first was so they could run back up the hill and watch the rest of the parade.
Visconti, too, made her way back up the hill, to the other end of Central Avenue, near the Shapiro family. It was around 10:20 a.m. when she heard several slower booming sounds followed immediately by a rapid secession of what seemed 20 loud pops, she said.
“It thought it was blanks, part of the parade at first,” she said. “But my friend turned to me and told me, ‘No, it’s real!’”
After a pause of around five seconds, she heard another rapid series of shots. She and her friend ran.
Not far from Visconti, 16-year-old Yonatan Garfinkle, of Highland Park, understood he had to get away fast.
A friend’s dad happened to be passing by in his Jeep. Fifteen other people were already in the vehicle or holding onto it. He jumped on its side, too, hugging it tightly as the vehicle sped away from the city center.
Staging for the parade was on St. John’s Avenue, near a parking garage and train station. Floats, bands and politicians headed north a bit, then turned west down Central.
Greg Gilberg, 45, was on a float with his wife just minutes from making the turn when he saw crowds of frightened parade goers bolt from the avenue. The Highland Park man didn’t hear any shots clearly, but knew they needed to flee. So he and his wife hurried to where he had left his bike nearby; she jumped on the back with him and Gilberg peddled as fast as he could home.
As he passed the Highland Park library, Gilberg said, he saw dozens of people streaming inside for safety.
The sound of the shots was much louder on Central Avenue — the parade’s main thoroughfare — where Richard Isenberg and his wife were watching the parade near a shop that sells outdoor gear. Though they could not see who was firing or where they were, Isenberg could tell from the sound that the shooter was close.
The couple fled, turning around a corner and into a lot full of large dumpsters. They saw a man lift his children into one of the dumpsters. He asked the Isenbergs to keep an eye on them as he ran back to the street for other relatives who had come to the parade with him.
The couple returned to the scene Tuesday to try to retrieve their car, which was still in an area cordoned-off by police investigating the crime. Recalling the thunderous sound of gunfire, Isenberg’s wife, who declined to share her name, covered her ears and closed her eyes.
“I can’t stop hearing it,” she said.
For Howard Diamond, 45, of Highland Park, attending the Independence Parade each year was a family tradition.
He was sitting in a lawn chair with his wife, 9-year-old son and other members of his extended family when he heard loud bangs about 500 feet away. Someone said it was fireworks. But he said he knew better, telling everyone they were shots and they needed to move now.
“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!” he recalled yelling.
Speaking Tuesday from outside a police cordon on Central Avenue, he pointed to a child’s blue miniature car, toppled over amid the pandemonium the day before, saying it belonged to his sister-in-law’s son. He had hoped to retrieve his cellphone, but was told he couldn’t because it was still a crime scene.
The Shapiro family wasn’t sure of the best escape route, they decided to run all the way to their nearby home. Shapiro grabbed his daughter in his arms and they sprinted away as fast as they could, leaving behind their children’s stroller and lawn chairs as they fled. Later that night, his 2-year-old woke up screaming, Shapiro said as he returned to downtown Tuesday to pick up the items the family abandoned.
“He is too young to understand what happened. But he knows something bad happened,” he said. “That’s chilling.”
Burnett reported from Chicago. Associated Press reporter Martha Irvine contributed.
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