CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – When they first heard gunfire erupt, some Marines at the reserve center in Chattanooga thought it was a drill. But it quickly became clear that there was a shooter on the grounds. Then Marines and sailors sprang into action to try to save each other from the hail of bullets.
Survivors of the July 16 attack spoke for the first time to the Chattanooga Times Free Press (http://bit.ly/1LIc0yr) about the ordeal that left five service members dead.
Sgt. Jeff Cantu said Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan of Springfield, Massachusetts, played a key role in shepherding 13 Marines and a sailor over a perimeter fence and out of danger. Cantu said he was one of the last men over when he noticed that Sullivan wasn't following.
"I turned around and Gunny was gone," he said. "I can't speak for what was going through his mind, but I immediately thought, 'I don't know where he's at,' and 'He went back in.'"
Sullivan, 40, was among four Marines and one sailor who were fatally shot by 24-year-old Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, who had crashed a rented Mustang convertible through the gates and started firing.
Pfc. Aaron Noyes, a supply clerk, was in the warehouse checking equipment with Lance Cpl. Squire "Skip" Wells when they were alerted about the active shooter.
"We rushed out, and that is the last time I saw Lance Cpl. Wells, racing off toward the motor pool to make sure the guys back there knew what was going on," Noyes said.
Wells, who had just texted his girlfriend in Savannah the words "ACTIVE SHOOTER," died in the attack along with Sullivan, Staff Sgt. David Wyatt, Sgt. Carson Holmquist and Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall Smith.
The group making its way over the fence ran to warn civilians in a neighboring park away from the danger. Noyes spotted a small boy wandering nearby and scooped him up to take him away from the scene.
"When I saw the kids, all I could think about was my little brother," he said. "And I just did what I thought was right."
The Marines awaiting the all-clear took a count to figure out who was among them and who was missing.
"Of course we wondered," Cantu said. "That's the only thing the Marines talked about — 'Well, where's Wells? Where's Holmquist? Where are these guys?'
Abdulazeez, who had earlier fired at a military recruiting center across town, was killed in a shootout with police.
Abdulazeez worked for his uncle's company, Global Trade Express, while he was in Jordan for several months last year, according to a person close to his family, who has said he was sent there to get him away from drugs, alcohol and a group of friends his parents considered a bad influence. That person spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid business repercussions.
The uncle, Asaad Ibrahim Asaad Haj Ali, was released without charges on Thursday. He had been detained for nearly a week by authorities in Jordan.
Investigators have said it's too early to determine whether Abdulazeez was "radicalized" before the attacks. FBI Knoxville Special Agent in Charge Ed Reinhold told reporters earlier this week that Abdulazeez was currently being treated as a "homegrown violent extremist."
Information from: Chattanooga Times Free Press, http://www.timesfreepress.com