Texas dispatchers recall trauma 1 year after mass shooting

Odessa dispatchers recounted the Aug. 31, 2019 shooting that killed seven people and injured 25


Michael Merlo
Odessa American, Texas

ODESSA, Texas — City of Odessa Public Safety communications dispatchers work four days on, four days off and 12-hour shifts. They take calls and dispatch the appropriate first responders to those in need.

Inside their office is a light blue tile floor leading to multiple monitors and call-taking stations. The television is on and the volume is low. The dispatcher’s voices are calm regardless of what or who is on the other end.

Odessa dispatchers reflected on the mass shooting that killed seven people and wounded 25 on Aug. 31 last year. (Photo/Odessa, Texas - City Government)
Odessa dispatchers reflected on the mass shooting that killed seven people and wounded 25 on Aug. 31 last year. (Photo/Odessa, Texas - City Government)

Sonya Cortez, 35, wasn’t supposed to work on Aug. 31, 2019, but a dispatch supervisor was moving to a new house and had asked for the day off.

So, she covered for her colleague as one of the five call takers who were on duty that holiday weekend.

That would be the weekend that gunman Seth Ator would shoot seven people to death and injure another 25 in a shooting spree that took him all over Odessa and parts of Midland. Ator would die in a field near Cinergy Theater that day after a gun battle with law enforcement.

As a quality assurance specialist, Cortez who had previously spent nine years as a dispatcher said she hadn’t been dispatching as much as she used to and it was a pretty normal day until a gunshot victim popped up on her screen.

“I dispatched that gunshot victim and you know a gunshot victim is kind of a crazy thing, but it’s not like it never happens, so I wasn’t like freaking out or anything,” she said.

She said a second gunshot victim showed up on her computer screen and she thought maybe it was the same one or maybe the wrong address was given, so she went to confirm that it was a second victim.

It was.

A third gunshot victim appeared on the screen, she said, and then she began shaking.

“I don’t think I ever stopped shaking and I just feel like at some point I had to just take my heart out of the equation,” she said.

Cortez said that she focused her mind on her training and just tried to do her job.

She said that normally calls aren’t on hold, “but to have a list of calls and they’re all really priority calls that you have to hurry up and dispatch, it really was the worst experience of my life,” she said.

Cortez said that she took a break when a supervisor arrived. She went to the bathroom, called her husband to make sure he was safe, which he was and then she cried.

Then she sat on a call taking position until it was time for her to leave.

Letitia Chavez, 30, one of the day shift supervisors was out of town that weekend with her husband. They had gone to Arlington to watch a Rangers game when she got a call from one of her co-workers who was working in Odessa.

“I answered my cell phone and I could hear chaos and she was like, ‘we need your help. We have an active shooter. I know you’re out of town, but can you help us?’”

Chavez said she stayed in the car while the Rangers game started and called more people to go into work including the supervisors and then she had to call wrecker services.

“I really don’t remember where they were requesting them or what they were requesting them for. I just know I called Neal Pool to go pick up vehicles that were left in the roadway. I just stayed on the phone with them. I could hear 911 phone calls ringing non-stop and just thinking I wish I could be here to help them answer those calls.”

While five people were originally in the office, nine other people came into the office to help take calls.

Director of Public Safety Communication Michele Racca, 54, said that she was called in about an active shooter and was helping dispatch as well as manage the office.

“On my way to the building, I’m calling my kids ‘where are you at?’, ‘make sure you stay home’ you know, because I knew they were out and about.”

She said that one thing that made the situation difficult was that there were reports of multiple vehicles with the shooter being in one car and then a postal truck.

“We know the post master called in all his trucks and then kind of did a roll call of what truck was missing so in the process of them returning to their offices, we got calls on about every post office truck,” she said adding that while they tried to figure out which postal truck was missing, some officers wanted her to make a timeline of how events had happened.

Racca said that with the mass shooting in El Paso, all of the ambulances could go to one spot, but there were multiple locations that needed ambulances over a three or four-mile radius in Odessa.

“They were scattered everywhere,” she said adding that the volume of calls made it difficult to pick where to send them.

Racca said that while many calls were high priority related to the shooting, others were regular calls and some calls were from national and international media that were tying up the lines.

One of the dispatchers, Racca said, heard gunshots as she took a call from law enforcement officers.

Racca said that while it took around 54 minutes until the gunman was killed at Cinergy, the calls kept coming.

“It was four hours before it calmed down,” she said, “In that four hours’ time, we had 1,100 calls,” which is typically how many they would get in a day and a half to two days.

Racca said she didn’t leave the office until around midnight.

Cortez said that things didn’t calm down for her until she got home.

She said that there was hardly any traffic on her drive home. She ate dinner, had a drink, and went to sleep.

Chavez said that she came into work the next day and that all the initial five who also worked Saturday had showed up to work. She said she mainly came in to check on people and see if they needed a break or needed to leave.

Cortez said that coming into work the next day was similar to her drive home.

“The drive into work was just weird, like looking around and thinking about what happened. I just kept thinking about the people who were like at a stoplight and then got shot. I’m at a stoplight just looking around and then I come in and everyone is just really somber, but we just still had to do our job like normal.”

Racca said that since the shooting there has been a peer support group and debriefings for those who need to talk about major or minor incidents. She added that there was also counseling available and that the Family Resiliency Center is also an option to those who were impacted by the mass shooting.

The Texas Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (TX APCO) selected the City of Odessa Public Safety Communications Department as the 2019 Telecommunicator Team of the Year for their work during the mass shooting.

Those listed are people who worked that day including Dispatcher Joyce Mudd, Dispatcher and QA Specialist Sonya Cortez, Dispatcher Alicia Tayler, Dispatcher Keylee Buford and Dispatcher Abbey Wilkin. Those dispatchers who were working during the shooting are reportedly to be honored at the 2021 TX Public Safety Conference in Galveston.

Those who weren’t scheduled, but worked that day include Letitia Chavez, Michele Racca, Cynthia Scott, Gina Fierro, Tiffany Baker, Kirstie Minihan, Kaleigh Foust, Rebecca Ellison, Kara Thurman and Darla Tilghman.

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©2020 the Odessa American (Odessa, Texas)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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