Crisis Counselor Recalls Losing Fiancé In San Bernardino Attack
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Now from our colleague Kelly McEvers, a story about a man and a woman.
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: They met a few years ago online.
MANDY PIFER: I was in my late 30s. He was in his early 40s when we met. So it was a very kind of mature relationship. We didn't jump into anything. We shared stories. We went to concerts. We were best friends. And then kind of really turned it up a notch the last six months of his life.
MCEVERS: That's Mandy Pifer talking about her fiance Shannon Johnson. She was a marriage therapist working here in Los Angeles. He was a county health inspector who worked about an hour away in San Bernardino. One year ago today, Mandy was at work.
PIFER: I was giving a therapy session.
PIFER: And I was probably on my third client of the day. And as we were leaving the room, that's when I checked my - I just looked at my phone. And a friend had sent a text. It just said, you know, mass shooting out in San Bernardino. I hope you're OK. And my first thought was I don't work in San Bernardino, you know, I'm fine. So I thought, well, Shannon's out there. But it's a large county, and that's just kind of when it all started.
MCEVERS: It was around 11 a.m. A husband and wife wearing ski masks had walked into the holiday party for the county Public Health Department and started shooting people. The Public Health Department is where Shannon worked. Mandy started calling his phone. Because she had worked as a crisis counselor helping witnesses and survivors of traumatic events, Mandy knew from her training that something wasn't right.
PIFER: I knew when I called Shannon's phone and it went straight to voicemail. And this is after calling it dozens of times. And I just knew first responders turn off cellphones so they don't hear them ringing after an event like this. So I kind of knew he was dead. I mean, that really confirmed for me that he was one of the victims.
MCEVERS: Oh, you mean first responders will turn off the victim's cellphones.
PIFER: Right, so they don't hear all the cellphones ringing.
MCEVERS: Oh, yeah, right.
MCEVERS: So you knew when he didn't pick up?
PIFER: Yeah - well, I had a feeling when he didn't pick up. But when it went straight to voicemail...
PIFER: ...I thought, well, this is weird.
MCEVERS: Oh, wow. What did you come to learn about what happened, you know, that day and what he did?
PIFER: I always knew - we talked about his response - what his response would be during a situation like this. I always had a feeling that you wouldn't run or hide. So he just did what came natural to him and covered the person closest to him and shielded her from a lot of bullets. You know, when they got down in his low Southern drawl he just said, you know, I got you. It was just natural. The shot that killed him was to his right thigh. But I wasn't surprised that he shielded somebody.
MCEVERS: Her name is Denise Peraza, is that right?
PIFER: Denise Peraza, yeah. So...
MCEVERS: And she survived?
PIFER: She survived. She's going to be having a baby girl after the first of the year - Olivia Shannon (crying), so...
MCEVERS: After that day, Mandy stopped working as a therapist. She transferred all her clients to other counselors.
PIFER: Every note in my client's file says, due to catastrophic events in the therapist's life, this case has been transferred. I'm not able to hold another's pain right now in such an intense setting, week after week after week. So...
MCEVERS: Mandy says even though she was trained in how to treat trauma, she had no idea how she was going to react to Shannon's death. She says she was in la-la land (ph) for the first month or so, planning all kinds of events and memorials and going to meet the president, which she says was just surreal. After that, the way she got through it was to keep working as a caregiver for her friend.
PIFER: My friend still needed care. And so I just kind of upped the hours I worked with her. She's a person living with Alzheimer's who experienced the loss of her best friend. So together, I mean, we were just a bunch of Debbie Downers (ph).
PIFER: But, you know, we have a garden together. We have a dog together. So I just spend a lot of time in flip-flops and sweatpants gardening. My landlord still wanted his rent check. So as much as I wanted to stay in bed and not ever get out, luckily, I had this friend to get me out because she still needed help. And she helped me.
MCEVERS: Yeah, what do you do for work now?
PIFER: So now, as of October, I'm a program manager working out of Los Angeles City Hall, managing the Crisis Response Team. And now I have some insight into what surviving victims go through.
MCEVERS: You coordinate crisis responders.
MCEVERS: Do you yourself go out sometimes...
PIFER: I have, sometimes...
MCEVERS: ...And do some crisis response work? - yeah.
PIFER: Yeah, you know, sometimes I have gone out. And you know what? It's - it was - the first time wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be because I'm not going to hijack their experience with my own experience. I just know that they have a long road ahead of them, the people we respond to. And keeping them safe in the moments after the horrible accident is really helping me heal, to an extent. It's giving back. And it's a huge word, people were dropping it. I didn't agree at first. But I think it's destiny now.
MCEVERS: I guess when you talk about destiny, do you think about him when you're out there doing this work?
PIFER: Oh, (crying) I think about it every day. Yeah, I hear his voice all the time. He wasn't - listen, he wasn't the softest...
PIFER: (Laughter) You know, like, sometimes he was so blunt. And I hear that often - you know, like, good lord, Mandy. Just - this is your job, just do it. And I hear that, and it helps. I hear his voice all the time. Most of the time it's telling me to stop being ridiculous.
MCEVERS: (Laughter) Sounds like a good voice. Can I borrow it?
PIFER: (Laughter) Yeah, you can have it - yeah. Yeah, he was always very encouraging. But he made it clear that he couldn't be the one encouraging me. I had to find my own voice encouraging. I'm blessed to have been left with that. If I talked back to the number of times I hear him talk to me...
PIFER: ...(Laughter) I would - I would probably be asked to have an evaluation of sorts. But...
MCEVERS: Mandy Pifer, thank you so much.
PIFER: You're welcome, thank you.
MCEVERS: That's Mandy Pifer, who now manages crisis response teams in Los Angeles, remembering her fiance, Shannon Johnson, who was killed one year ago in San Bernardino. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.