COLLIERVILLE, Tenn. – Two women who had been strangers prior to Thursday’s mass shooting at a Tennessee supermarket clenched each other’s hands and fought back tears Friday, as they gathered at a vigil to pray for healing from the previous day’s rampage at a Kroger where the shooter worked.
Hollie Skaggs and Sara Wiles happened to be running errands at the same Kroger in Collierville. A day later, after a gunman killed one person and himself and wounded 14 others, Skaggs called Wiles her guardian angel.
“It’s been a very trying last few hours,” Skaggs said, her voice trembling. “Sara and I didn’t know each other before. But now, I told her from the beginning when we came out, she’s my guardian angel. I’m just grateful for her. We ran and hid and heard everything. It was very, very traumatic. We just ask that you pray for us for peace – and sleep. That’s one thing that’s kind of hard.”
The gunman, identified by police as UK Thang, worked in a sushi business at the store and was the son of refugees from Myanmar who had settled in Nashville, a family friend said.
Police have described Thang as a “third-party vendor” who worked at the grocery store on a daily basis. He died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound within a couple of minutes of officers arriving at the Kroger in the upscale suburb outside of Memphis.
The victims included 10 employees and five customers, police said. On Friday, some of the wounded were still in critical condition and fighting for their lives, Collierville Police Chief Dale Lane said at a morning news conference.
Lane identified the woman who was killed as Olivia King. Friend Maureen Fraser said King was a widowed mother of three grown sons.
Fraser said King was “kind of quiet,” “kind of shy,” but also "a little bit feisty because (she'd) been on her own — with the support of her family, friends and church.”
King was a devout Catholic who attended Mass nearly every morning, including the morning of the shooting, Fraser said.
“She was a very generous person and would always do what she could to help people.” Fraser said. That included passing Fraser's family an envelope of cash one year when her husband was out of work. King was worried they wouldn't be able to get Christmas presents for their children. Fraser said the money wasn't necessary, but King insisted on helping.
On Facebook, one of King’s sons, Wes King, wrote that he had spoken to a trauma surgeon and learned his mother was shot in the chest.
“They tried to save her at the hospital to no avail,” he wrote. “I apologize for the graphic details, but this type of crime needs to stop being glossed over and sanitized. No one deserves this.”
Police searched the shooter’s home Thursday and removed electronic devices.
“We all want to know the why,” Lane said of the shooter’s motive. “But today, less than 24 hours (after the shooting), we’re not ready to tell you that.”
The shooter’s parents live in Nashville and are part of a community of Christian refugees from Myanmar who have settled there, according to Aung Kyaw, a friend of the family who came to pray with them at their home on Friday.
Kyaw said Thang worked at a sushi business that operated inside the Collierville Kroger, though he wasn’t sure what the arrangement was with the grocery store chain.
Kyaw said Thang’s parents were “very upset” about their son’s involvement and were praying for all the people involved.
Kyaw came to the door of the parents’ home at the end of a cul-de-sac in the Antioch area of Nashville. Kyaw said he did not know the son personally.
The shooter, acting alone, did not appear to target anyone specifically as he rampaged through the building Thursday afternoon, police said. The entire shooting was over within minutes as first responders swarmed the scene.
Lane said the outcome could have been worse but said officers of every rank quickly responded and were joined by off-duty firefighters.
“Nobody wants to go into that scene, I can promise you," Lane said. “I mean, there were bloody people running out of that building, and there was not one blue uniform that hesitated, from the bottom all the way up.”
Earlier this year, Tennessee became the latest state to allow most adults 21 and older to carry handguns without first clearing a state-level background check and training. The measure was signed into law by Republican Gov. Bill Lee over objections from some law enforcement groups and gun control advocates concerned the measure could lead to more gun violence.
Lee said Friday that the new law strengthened penalties that come into play when violent crime occurs.
“The constitutional carry bill applies to law-abiding citizens," he said. “What happened yesterday was criminal activity, violent criminal gun activity. And those are separate issues. The constitutional carry piece of legislation we passed, in fact, strengthened penalties for violent gun criminals, and we need to continue to find ways to attack violence and violent crime and we’ll keep doing that.”
The Kroger Co., based in Cincinnati, Ohio, issued a statement Friday confirming that the shooter was a third-party vendor but declined to provide additional details.
The Collierville store will be closed until further notice but will continue to provide pay and other support to employees, the statement said.
Mattise and Loller reported from Nashville, Tennessee. Associated Press writer Carrie Antlfinger in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and News Researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this report.