Updated June 2022
No one goes to work or to school expecting to face a gunman and be shot. Not in Portland. And not in offices, theatres, shopping centers or schools.
As we rack up the tragedies caused by gunfire, I am thankful that my own brush with workplace violence ended without fatalities.
I have held a number of jobs in downtown offices, starting with Onsite Energy (PacifiCorp) in the Lawrence Building, AT&T Capital in the US Bank Tower AKA “Big Pink” and in KOIN Center, and then Grant Thornton adjacent to KOIN Center in Columbia Square.
I was with AT&T Capital when the office moved from Big Pink to KOIN Center in 1991. I was laid off in 1992, but made my way back in 1993, first as a consultant, then hired full time in the spring of 1994. Concetta and I were finally able to buy our first house in Tigard where we could finally be more serious about a family; Allegra was brought home in August 1996.
I was rehired in a marketing role in 1994, which morphed into pricing for our sales materials, then a sales territory about the time we took on a new client, JCB, a construction equipment manufacturer from England. As a territory manager, I called on dealers, which was a whole new toolbox of skills for me to learn.
The KOIN building was really two properties: the business side occupied the lower half of the building, including a television station in the basement. In my first two years at AT&T, my boss Glen dreamed up a video that we would eventually play for our client Hyster in a pitch to provide formal finance training to dealers. We filmed a sleezy piano bar player playing custom jingles about training in between not-so subtle messages. We had hired a production company whose salesperson Glen knew; the company was a subsidiary of KOIN, so we filmed one Sunday afternoon in the basement studios.
The upper floors, the so-called Fountain Plaza Condominiums, are 44 expensive condos whose entrance is around the corner from the business entrance. While both the business side and the condo side parked in the building’s basement, the condo owners had a separte area blocked by a roll-up door. The main entrance and exit went past an area devoted to building services; I had been down to the business services level once or twice to recycle some computer equipment, but with the sales territory came a company car that I parked in the KOIN garage.
In the middle of the afternoon of January 4, 1996, my colleague Nick left to go downstairs to the building sundry shop for a snack. He had been gone a few minutes when I too had an urge for a munchy. I left the office double doors walking toward the elevator when the fire alarms rang. When I hit the elevator call buttons, nothing happened; the elevators had returned to the first floor.
We were all unsure what was happening until Nick called the office. He was at his car parked in the parking garage across the street where he called the office to alert us that there was an armed man with an assault-style rifle in the lobby and everyone should stay put and away from the office glass doors, which were immediately locked.
Nick later filled me in: when he came out of the snack shop on the first floor, he turned left to head toward the elevators There are a couple of steps down and then glass doors. When he had taken a few steps, he looked up to see a man holding a woman hostage and holding a serious looking rifle, waving at Nick to come his way. Nick said in his mind he said, “toy gun . . . toy gun . . . REAL GUN!” He turned 180 degrees and fled to the exit at the SW corner of the building and across the street to the parking garage.
What we didn’t know then was that the gunman had entered through the parking garage and fired shots there wounding a delivery driver. The gunman grabbed a woman hostage, went to the elevator, intending to go up. His mistake was firing shots after stepping into the elevator: the smoke from the rifle barrel set off the smoke alarm. His elevator went to the lobby level and all the building elevators came down to the lobby level. That’s the moment I was heading for the elevator.
Now in the lobby, the gunman would fire several stray “warning” shots, leaving holes in the marble we could see for several weeks afterward. He then dragged his hostage into the Charles Schwab office, located on the northeast corner of lobby, taking hostage the staff there; a number hid under desks and were not discovered by the gunman. The building was remodeled a few years ago; the Charles Schwab office space was eliminated.
There was no access to stairs to the upper floors. While the gunman could not go to upper floors to hassle, injure or kill lawyers with whom he had a grudge (as we learned later), we were also stuck upstairs for whatever the duration might be. We evaluated if there were enough “Lean Cuisine” meals in the freezer to go around.
By now I had alerted Concetta, who was pregnant. What I didn’t know was how this event was playing out on the news, especially KOIN TV Channel 6, whose studio entrance was across the lobby from the ensconced shooter. What I could see was troubling: my west facing office overlooking 3rd Avenue allowed me to see the slow approach of an armored vehicle from the north. At south corner of the building from which Nick had fled, the police were racing an escort of fleeing office workers across the street to the front of the Keller Auditorium and out of harms way.
I can’t really say I was nervous, but I was certainly very “present,” watching for any change going on outside. Our office spanned the whole floor; I don’t remember walking to the northeast corner, in part because we really didn’t know what was going on or where; there was no public internet as there is today that tells us what video stars ate for breakfast; we could have watched in real time and probably would have opted to escape down the stairs, which exited on the second floor near the theatre entrance, letting us flee as Nick had out of view of the shooter.
Concetta called me later, saying she had spoken to my grandmother, who had seen the news and was pretty shaken up. Concetta suggested I call her. When my grandmother answered, first there was silence, then a sniffle. She had been crying and couldn’t speak. I assured her that we were very safe and that the police were present and all would be well. I promised to call when I got home.
The event dragged on through the afternoon and past the normal evening rush hour, but the sky and our knowledge of the events downstairs were in the dark.
What we discovered later was that the police had been in contact with the shooter from just after his takeover of the Charles Schwab office. To the east, SWAT sharpshooters had taken up positions in the Marriott Hotel and allegedly had held the shooter in their sights all afternoon. The negotiations played out and the shooter surrendered by early evening. He was later sentenced to 330 years.
Our VP walked around the office, announcing the end of the standoff and that we could get home. Those of us on the upper floors who had remained in the building created a traffic jam getting out of the building.
The events that day were surreal; many details came out later, which gave us perspective as well anxiety, knowing what could have happened to us, to Nick, to the Charles Schwab hostages, even to the shooter had the police shot him. While those of us in the AT&T office were unscathed, perhaps only inconvenienced, I think that my grandmother was also a victim of terror, as were others’ loved ones. I did call her when I got home.
This fellow was clearly mentally deranged. How he came to possess the assault rifle is unknown. Would he have been kept from buying it legally? Depends. From a gun store yes, but not likely at a flea market or gun show. And perhaps he stole or “borrowed” it from someone he knew. Where do the second amendment “rights” start and stop? Hand guns, legal to own and, five years earlier, to conceal. Hunting rifles, shotguns, legal. These all clearly fit the historical definition of self defense, especially at home. But where does the thrill of taking a high powered, semi or fully automatic gun to a shooting range become too risky for the possession by a few who will abuse this right? Why stop at just owning rifles? How about shoulder launched surface-to-air missiles, just in case our foes invade us with air power? Or silent-but-lethal hand-held lasers that instantly cut through flesh?
This was certainly not the first incident of gun violence in a work setting, but it was rare at the time. A shooting at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon, would happen three years later. It seems that there have been so many since, including schools and places of worship, that we have become almost numb to these violent acts, without a clear solution except to pray for the victims and families.
You can watch a special news segment regarding the incident on KOIN here: https://www.koin.com/local/multnomah-county/where-we-live-the-koin-tower-siege-of-1996/amp/