When Abi Owings and her mother, Danise, started their tour of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., they expected their visit to be somber.
But they had no idea their memory of the museum that day would be marred by gunfire and the death of the security guard who checked their bags on the way in.
In Washington to visit Micah Owings, Danise’s son and Abi’s brother who pitches for the Cincinnati Reds, the two Gainesville women made a point to visit the museum.
Not long after they passed through the security check and started their tour of the museum, which begins on the fourth floor, James Von Brunn, 88, allegedly entered the lobby of the museum and opened fire, fatally wounding security guard Stephen T. Johns before being shot himself by other officers.
Abi said she had just walked outside onto a balcony to call her brother when she heard the shots below her.
"You knew it was a gunshot," she said. "First you thought maybe something fell. First you heard one shot that was really loud, then the next six shots, five shots, were really rapid fire."
She didn’t see the shooter, she said, but it was clear something was happening.
"From where I was people were screaming and jumping on the ground," she said. "I didn’t see the shooter, but you definitely saw the aftermath of it, with people jumping and running and screaming and ducking."
Abi and her mother were one floor above the lobby in different sections of the exhibits. Both said when they heard the shots, they immediately ran to find each other.
"I heard like a loud pop kind of sound, like you wouldn’t really think about it. My first response wouldn’t be it’s a gunshot," Danise said. "Then I heard feet running and people screaming; I was probably 50 feet to 75 feet from where Abi was, and that’s when I kinda knew something was wrong."
She said a man came running by, saying there was a man with a gun loose in the museum, and she and Abi, now reunited, hid in a cubicle used for watching video recreations of the Holocaust experience. Danise tried to keep Abi and two high school-aged girls calm while they tried to figure out what was going on.
In the meantime, Abi had been trying to get in touch with her brother, who they were supposed to meet for lunch. Abi had gone to the balcony to get better phone reception, and because they were back inside, she couldn’t tell him what was going on.
So, she decided to make a break for it, quickly texting her brother from near the balcony and returning to the cubicle.
"We kind of shrunk back and a gentleman came up and said, ‘Hurry, everyone exit.’ And we started running through the lobby and out a side exit," Abi said. "It was mass pandemonium. We were running so fast we didn’t even look. It was just like, ‘let’s get out.’"
One thing that will stick with the women is the smile the security guard had when he checked their bags.
In such a somber place, Danise said she was struck by Johns’ cheerfulness when they entered the museum.
"Before we went into the building we stopped to ask where it was, and this woman said be sure after you go there to do something fun, because that is a very sobering experience," Danise said. "When we were going into the museum, the first thing I noticed was this man with the biggest smile on his face and I thought, this is going to be the last happy thing before we walk into the building — his smile and his face is etched in my mind."
Abi said she still doesn’t feel the scene at the museum was real, with cops and helicopters swarming as they were running out of the building.
"I think from being in the museum and seeing everything you’ve seen, you’re already at a breaking point. ... And you’re at that level where your emotions are just frantic," she said. "And my mom said, ‘This is what people (during the Holocaust) lived through every hour of every day.’ It was so so true, because you could just see sheer terror in their eyes."
"I told her, ‘Abi, this is what those people felt like when they were in hiding,’" Danise said. "They didn’t feel it for 10 minutes, they felt it for years, that terror."
But despite the ordeal, the two said they would recommend anyone visit the Holocaust museum.
"I would encourage anybody to go; I would go again because it reminds us for our country to always fight," Danise said. "It was a day we’ll never forget."