Whitney Austin Wants to End Gun Violence

Shot 12 times at the Fifth Third Center, Whitney Austin survived and launched a nonprofit dedicated to ending gun violence in America.

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

September 6, 2018, started like any other Thursday for Whitney Austin, a 37-year-old vice president and senior product development manager for Fifth Third Bank. She woke up later than usual, around 6 a.m., and prepared to drive 100 miles from her Louisville home to downtown Cincinnati’s Fifth Third Center, the bank’s headquarters. The commute was a weekly habit for Austin, who worked at Fifth Third’s downtown Louisville office the other four days of the week. She’d stepped into a new role last June that required her weekly presence in Cincinnati.

That morning, she was running behind schedule, missing her 5:30 a.m. departure time, which puts her in Cincinnati at 7:30 a.m. As Austin geared up for a busy day of back-to-back meetings, her husband, Waller Austin, helped their 7-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter get ready for school. It was 7:30 by the time she got out the door, after giving her kids not one but two hugs and kisses each, per their special request.

Austin rarely passed on an opportunity to optimize her workday. She filled her Cincinnati commute with work-related phone calls, so she could “focus on the kids” after work, and her September 6 drive was no exception. It consisted of a one-on-one work call followed by a brief podcast and then a work-related conference call, which she joined just as the city’s skyline came into view on the highway. Austin concentrated on this call, as she and a few bank colleagues were discussing an issue they’d already tried tackling twice. As predicted, she lost connection upon entering Fountain Square’s North Garage directly beneath the square and Fifth Third Center.

“That’s one of my biggest regrets,” Austin says. “It didn’t make sense that [part of the] door was shattered. I should have stopped, and I should have asked questions, but I didn’t. I just kept moving.”

After parking, Austin took a staircase to The Westin’s atrium and rejoined the call as she exited onto Fifth Street. It was a few minutes past 9 a.m. when she crossed the street to Fountain Square, not paying attention to anything other than the conference call and dodging traffic. Looking back on that morning, Austin doesn’t recall if the square was bustling with pedestrians shuffling to work or if she was the only person there.

Still pierced in her memory, though, is an image of the Fifth Third building’s revolving door. She noticed something was off when she reached the main entrance between Graeter’s Ice Cream and Potbelly Sandwich Shop. The door’s glass partition bore a small circular puncture, with spider web–like cracks radiating out. Still absorbed in the conference call with her phone to her ear, Austin ignored the hole and pushed the door with her dominant right hand. “That’s one of my biggest regrets,” Austin tells me on a chilly January afternoon, while sitting in her cozy Louisville home. “It didn’t make sense that [part of the] door was shattered. I should have stopped, and I should have asked questions, but I didn’t. I just kept moving.”

At 9:09 a.m., Austin walked into Cincinnati’s deadliest mass shooting since 2013, which resulted in four deaths, including the shooter, who had entered the Fifth Third Center two minutes earlier. Austin miraculously survived 12 bullets to her arms, chest, and foot that morning, thanks to several heroic Cincinnati Police Department officers, especially Officer Alphonso Staples, who rescued her after she became trapped in the revolving door, and a team of professionals at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, including Michael Goodman, M.D., one of her primary caretakers.

Today, as she continues recovering physically and mentally, Austin focuses on a very personal project: Whitney/Strong, a nonprofit organization she launched to help reduce gun deaths by championing responsible and realistic solutions, because “one more life lost is too much,” she says. And even though it gave her a new mission, Austin’s hope is that no one else will experience a day like September 6, an otherwise normal day that took a devastating turn.

The second Austin pushed the Fifth Third Center’s revolving door, she was hit with multiple bullets along her right side. She immediately collapsed to the floor inside the broken glass-paneled quadrant, dropping her laptop bag, clutch purse, and phone. She could hear her colleagues on the conference call asking “Whitney? Whitney? Are you there?” but they couldn’t hear what was happening, because she had muted the call before crossing Fifth Street to be courteous. “I had this thought, Am I really going to die listening to a Fifth Third conference call?” Austin recalls. “And that made me very upset to think about.”

A natural problem-solver, she racked her brain for a solution, her first being Get up and get out of here. But she couldn’t muster the strength to stand or even push through the revolving door to Fountain Square. She was trapped. And she couldn’t see who shot her or the activity inside the building lobby, since she collapsed facing outside. Austin had a clear view of the square, though, and “there wasn’t a soul.” No police. No pedestrians. No one to save her. That’s when she started coughing up blood. “I wasn’t sure where I was hit, I just knew it was a lot,” she says. “So I thought, It can’t be good to cough up blood like this. I’m dying. I don’t want to die without saying goodbye to Waller and my family.

Austin reached for her phone with her left arm to call her husband and was hit with another wave of bullets. “It was a silly thing to do because I really couldn’t move my arms at all,” she says. “In my head, in that moment in time, I thought, Well, he shot me again because I moved. I just need to play dead.” So that’s what she did. She sat frozen, with bullet wounds across her chest and in both arms, her cream-colored blouse pooling with blood, waiting for someone to save her. Then she saw Officer Staples.

Alphonso Staples, photographed on February 8, 2019.

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

Staples, who goes by Al, works in the Central Business District covering the downtown area between Central Parkway and The Banks. He’ll celebrate his 29th year as a CPD officer next month and says he’s never experienced a day like September 6. He believes God was with him that morning.

Typically, between 7 and 9 a.m., he and his colleagues work to ensure the main downtown streets aren’t clogged during rush hour and follow up on incidents that occurred overnight. They call this period a “no eat” time. That morning, however, he and three officers were having breakfast at Sophia’s Deli & Restaurant, a small spot near Eighth and Main streets, less than half a mile from the Fifth Third Center. It was a colleague’s last day before retiring, and they wanted to celebrate.

They wrapped up breakfast around 9 a.m. At 9:08 they received a call. “We were standing there talking, and then [we heard], ‘We had a caller who said they thought they heard a shot at Fifth Third Bank,’” recalls Staples, who initially questioned whether the caller had mistaken nearby construction work for gunshots. “And then it’s, ‘There’s an active shooter at Fifth Third Bank.’ ” Fortunately, their cruisers were parked on Eighth Street pointing in the direction of Walnut Street and the bank building. “When we got to Walnut, it was like the sea opened up,” he says. “All the cars just went to the side, so we were there within minutes.”

CPD body camera footage shows officers arriving at the scene at 9:10 a.m., just two minutes after being dispatched. Staples says there was some confusion at first as to whether the shooting originated from the Fifth Third Center or the Fifth Third branch on Fountain Square next to Potbelly. “Why would you go into an office center and start shooting? You’re going to go into a bank and rob it,” Staples remembers thinking. So when the officers arrived at Fountain Square from Walnut Street, Staples ran toward Graeter’s while the others proceeded through the outdoor breezeway between Fifth Third Bank and Potbelly. “Thinking of a robbery, I was looking for a person getting ready to run across Fountain Square,” Staples says. “That wasn’t the case when we got there. They started telling us that it was inside the [center lobby].”

When he reached the center, Staples took cover behind a barrier near Graeter’s to the right of the revolving door, just feet from where Austin was trapped. He couldn’t see the shooter, but he could see her “laying on the ground in a bed of glass, and it was straight eye-to-eye contact.”

Austin’s mindset shifted the moment she saw Staples. “I started to believe I was going to survive,” she says. “I kept yelling at him, I’ve got a 5- and a 7-year-old who need their mother. You need to come save me! And I was really concerned and confused as to why he wasn’t saving me.” Austin now realizes that’s because the shooting threat wasn’t confirmed stopped. “It all moved very quickly. For me, of course, it felt like it took forever, but it really wasn’t that much time before they killed the shooter.”

Twenty-eight seconds after the first police officers arrived, the shooter was stopped. At 9:11 a.m., when Staples learned this, he asked another officer to help him lift Austin, unsure if there were additional threats in the center. “It was kind of like a bear hug,” he says, “so I could turn and, if there were still shots being fired, they would hit me in the vest as I moved her out of that revolving door.” Staples carried Austin to the square’s flagpole near Fifth Street and laid her on its marble base. CPD Sergeant Kara Graves placed a tourniquet on Austin’s left arm to slow the bleeding as Staples called for an ambulance, knowing medical personnel couldn’t come until all shooting threats were stopped and police gave the OK. At 9:22, roughly 10 minutes after Staples rescued Austin from the revolving door, an ambulance arrived to rush her three miles to the UC Medical Center, a Level 1 Trauma Center.

“I just thought she was dead,” Waller Austin, Whitney’s husband, says. “My head was racing. I thought it was like some sort of terrible joke.”

As Austin made her way to UCMC, so did her husband Waller, but he had to travel a bit farther. At 9:16, he was perched on a ladder in the backyard of their Louisville home, installing a home security system, when he received an unknown call from a 513 number. “I picked up the phone and there were sirens going off, and I was like, Oh, this is weird,” he recalls. Staples proceeded to inform him that his wife was involved in an active shooting, had been shot multiple times in the chest, and would soon be taken to UCMC. “I just thought she was dead,” Waller says. “My head was racing. I thought it was like some sort of terrible joke. Then I could hear Whitney saying, Let me talk to him! And I was like, What the hell is going on?” Austin told him she had been “shot so many times” and she “hurt so bad,” but she was breathing and thinking. The entire phone call lasted 30 seconds.

Shocked by how coherent Austin sounded for having been shot in the chest, Waller immediately called her parents and sister, then jumped in his car to pick up his mother, who lives on the way to I-71, and raced to UCMC. “I drove over 100 miles an hour,” says Waller, who drives to Cincinnati often to attend Bengals games. “I was there in an hour, from leaving [home] and going to pick up my mom.”

Austin was the first of those injured in the shooting to arrive at UCMC. Fortunately, the hospital staff trains for these situations in their mass-casualty plan. UCMC learned of the shooting about 10 minutes prior to Austin’s 9:37 a.m. arrival, says Goodman, an associate professor of surgery. In those 10 minutes, the hospital mobilized staff and resources to its trauma center and equipped several beds to take incoming patients.

Officer Staples visiting Austin at UCMC after her second surgery in October.

Photograph courtesy of Whitney Austin

Goodman was in charge of the bed closest to the trauma bay doors when Austin arrived. For the next 30 minutes, he and his team assessed her vitals, took preliminary X-rays, and performed a CT scan. “Once we got her imaging, it looked like there were actually no direct life-threatening injuries at that point, despite the fact that she had 12 wounds,” he says. In addition to the bullet wounds across her chest and arms—one bullet also grazed the top of her left foot—Austin suffered a broken rib, a bruised lung, and a fractured right arm, with breaks in the humerus, ulna, and radial head. Goodman transferred her to the surgical intensive care unit, where they continued to monitor her vitals, reassess her lab values, and establish care plans. The next day, Austin underwent a nearly seven-hour surgery to repair her fractured right arm, completed by John Wyrick, M.D., whom Austin calls “a magician.”

Sometime over the subsequent five days Austin spent at UCMC, in between surgery and having her wounds washed and dressed, she and Waller came up with the idea of Whitney/Strong. Less than two weeks later, she announced the organization and launched its website.

In February 2018, after 17 people died in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Austin signed up with Moms Demand Action, a grassroots movement of the nonprofit organization Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates for stronger gun laws. She received weekly texts about how to get involved in Louisville, but she ignored them. “I was compelled to take action to sign up, but I wasn’t compelled enough to actually show up,” Austin says. “And it’s because I weighed, Do I want to go to this meeting? Or do I want to get another two hours with my kids today?

At some point during the two minutes she was trapped in that revolving door on September 6, Austin thought about her inaction. “This keeps happening,” she recalls thinking. “Silly you for thinking it would never happen to you. So now it’s happening to you, and you did absolutely nothing to prevent it.” Whitney/Strong became Austin’s response. “There’s no question in my mind that this is what I should be doing,” she says. “You can’t go through that situation—and I’d say have my personality—and just go back to what you were doing before.”

Whitney Austin, photographed on February 8, 2019.

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

Whitney/Strong is comprised of 14 team members volunteering their time and resources, all of whom are close to Austin or referred by a mutual friend. The nonprofit embraces five guiding principles to tackle gun violence: partnership, incremental wins, equality, compassion, and information.

Instead of labeling gun violence as a political issue, Austin identifies it as “a problem that needs to be solved.” Whitney/Strong doesn’t align with Democrats, Republicans, or any other political party, but instead uses a business-minded approach to establish bipartisan partnerships and implement change, which Austin recognizes happens incrementally. As a result, she champions a range of solutions that work toward her mission, even if they don’t completely eradicate gun violence. Whitney/Strong also celebrates equality and compassion by deeming all lives lost to gun violence as valuable and by meeting mental illness with kindness. “We have to figure out how to keep our country mentally well if we plan to solve some of these problems,” says Austin, who holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and an MBA in entrepreneurship from the University of Louisville.

Whitney/Strong also relies on thorough, unbiased research to formulate and support its positions. Government funding for gun violence research, however, has been partially restricted since 1996, when Congress passed the Dickey Amendment, prohibiting the use of federal funds to advocate for or promote gun control.

Data on gun violence does exist, even if research funding is limited. Throughout 2019, Whitney/Strong will focus on three solutions that polling suggests the majority of Americans support: enforce existing gun laws, champion new laws and funding, and implement proven suicide-prevention solutions. Efforts start with the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), originally mandated by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 and launched by the FBI in 1998.

“It would lead you to believe that there’s a high chance he was involuntarily committed at some point and should not have been able to purchase that firearm legally,” Austin says.

NICS is a computerized background check system designed to prevent the transfer of firearms to prohibited persons, which include “a person adjudicated mentally defective or involuntarily committed to a mental institution….” In a 2016 report, however, the FBI concluded that many states remained confused over how to submit mental health records to the NICS system. Whitney/Strong intends to partner with interested parties to leverage all tools, ranging from investigation to litigation, to ensure prohibited persons are unable to purchase firearms. And according to a fall 2018 Pew Research Center survey, 89 percent of Republicans and Democrats agree on preventing people with mental illness from purchasing guns.

At a news conference the day after the Fifth Third shooting, Cincinnati Police Chief Elliot Isaac confirmed that the shooter’s Taurus 9mm semiautomatic handgun was purchased legally at a local gun store, with no criminal or medical records preventing the purchase. While there’s no evidence confirming the shooter was mentally ill, Austin says there’s ample information supporting this claim, including instances of family members requesting a judge to involuntarily commit him to a mental institution. “It would lead you to believe that there’s a high chance he was involuntarily committed at some point and should not have been able to purchase that firearm legally,” Austin says.

Whitney/Strong also champions new gun laws and funding, including comprehensive background checks. In January, the U.S. House of Representatives introduced H.R. 8, a bipartisan bill requiring background checks on all gun sales. Background checks are currently required only for firearm purchases through licensed dealers, and H.R. 8 would extend them to sales through private dealers and at gun shows. The same 2018 Pew Research Center survey states 91 percent of Democrats and 79 percent of Republicans support background checks for private gun sales and sales at gun shows. In February, Austin and three other Whitney/Strong board members traveled to Washington, D.C., to discuss comprehensive background checks and other gun violence solutions with Democratic U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, who represents the district around Louisville, and Republican U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell. They also met with select staff members of U.S. Senators John Cornyn and Lindsey Graham, who both serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee. In late February, H.R. 8 passed the House of Representatives and moved to the Senate for consideration. If it doesn’t pass, Austin says Whitney/Strong will continue championing comprehensive background checks at the federal level.

Austin with some of the Cincinnati Police Department officers who responded to the shooting.

Photograph courtesy of Whitney Austin

At the local level, Whitney/Strong advocates for a red flag law in Kentucky. Also known as an extreme risk protection order, it would enable family members and law enforcement to petition the court to have guns temporarily confiscated from individuals who present danger to themselves or others. According to a 2018 poll conducted by The Washington Post and ABC News, 85 percent of Americans support this concept. While only 15 states currently maintain some version of it, Whitney/Strong has launched a legislative campaign to help pass red flag in Kentucky, partnering with Democratic State Senator and Minority Leader Morgan McGarvey. If red flag doesn’t pass in Kentucky this spring, Whitney/Strong will remain determined to reintroduce it in 2020; once passed, Austin plans on introducing it to other states.

More than 47,000 Americans lost their lives to suicide in 2017, and 51 percent of those deaths are attributed to firearms, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports. Studies published by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center show that reducing lethal means, especially firearms, reduces overall suicide rates. Thus, Whitney/Strong will focus on implementing proven suicide-prevention solutions across Kentucky, including programs like Counseling Access to Lethal Means (CALM) and the Gun Shop Project (GSP), already underway in other parts of the country. CALM is a training program that teaches health care providers counseling strategies to help clients at risk for suicide and their families reduce access to lethal means, particularly firearms. Whitney/Strong intends to partner with CALM’s cofounder to help recruit new hospitals and universities to the program. GSP provides suicide-prevention educational materials for firearm retailers and gun range owners, including a tip sheet to help retailers avoid selling to suicidal customers, and brochures and posters displaying suicide-prevention information. Like red flag, Austin hopes to introduce CALM and GSP in other states once they’re established in Kentucky.

The events of September 6, 2018, still feel surreal to Austin. Life since then hasn’t felt entirely normal, either. Over the past seven months, she’s endured two more surgeries and more than 10 trips to UCMC, plus countless hours of physical and psychological therapy. It’s especially remarkable how quickly she’s recovered emotionally, Goodman says.

Austin attributes her positive attitude to several factors, like the overwhelming support of family and friends. Her playful therapy cat has helped, too—she named him Alphonso, after Staples, with whom she still keeps in touch. Although she hasn’t yet returned to work at Fifth Third Bank, she looks forward to easing back into her role when she’s ready.

Austin faces new obstacles every day. Her right arm aches when it’s cold, and the doctor says she’ll never be able to throw a football like she used to—Austin will tell you she could toss a mean spiral. Riding a roller coaster with her son and even rolling a suitcase through the airport have proven challenging, but she continues to overcome difficulties. “She’s something else,” says Staples, who, along with eight others, received a Cincinnati Police Medal of Valor for his extraordinary bravery that day. “To be petite and be shot 12 times, well, she’s a miracle. She’s our miracle on Walnut Street.” Staples and Goodman also use phenomenal, strong, resilient, dynamic, and determined to describe Austin. Goodman adds that Whitney/Strong couldn’t be more aptly named.

Waller Austin’s crayon gun with 12 crayon bullets.

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

Austin focuses on the fact that she’s alive. Her loved ones celebrate this, too, though each has had to cope with the shooting in his or her own way. Waller, a professional artist, does so through his work. On October 5, just 29 days after the shooting, he launched a month-long interactive art installation, titled Negligence, at the Tim Faulkner Gallery in Louisville. The installation displayed replicas of the gun and bullets used in the Fifth Third shooting made out of melted crayons. “It’s the first time I’ve made art that has a serious social purpose,” says Waller, whose subversive work typically involves humor. At scheduled times during the installation, Waller used one of the fake guns to simulate a mass shooting/suicide, pointing it at spectators and himself before breaking it into pieces. In total, he made 54 crayon guns in different colors and more than 10,000 flesh-tone crayon bullets for the installation. Waller, a board member of Whitney/Strong, now sells them, with half of the proceeds going to the nonprofit. (The organization also raises money through online donations.)

Eventually, followers will be able to enter their contact information on Whitney/Strong’s website to receive updates via e-mail, similar to Moms Demand Action. Austin also hopes Whitney/Strong will grow to support paid full-time employees. For now, it will continue creating resources to tackle gun violence. Regardless of how large Whitney/Strong grows, Austin says she’ll work toward its mission for the rest of her life. “No one will ever be able to remove the terror I felt on that day,” she says. “It drives me to never forget and never give up.”

Facebook Comments