Outpouring of support is overwhelming
By BILL DURYEA
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 21, 1998
AMPA -- The gestures of grief were as subtle as a head bent in prayer and as dramatic as a donation of 6,000 roses.
The people of the Tampa Bay area expressed their grief Wednesday, one day after a man's murderous rampage left a 4-year-old boy and three law enforcement officers dead.
The tears came as steadily as the mourners.
Many of the hundreds who ventured to downtown police headquarters knew Tampa police Detectives Randy Bell and Rick Childers. They worked with the two veterans and remembered their comrades by banding their silver badges in black.
Others did not know those men or highway patrol Trooper James Crooks -- in fact had no connection to law enforcement. They felt drawn downtown nevertheless.
"You never know with teenagers, maybe they'll think they have something more important to do," Cole said. "I was really glad that my daughter wanted to come down."
Said Lauren: "It means something to go over there and put your flowers down. I still have this tingling sensation all over my body."
A black marble memorial to slain officers provided a focal point for the grief-stricken. Parents brought their small children. Large men laid down small bouquets and turned away.
The heat was hard on cut flowers, wilting carnations, chrysanthemums and sunflowers. Those who did not bring their own found a ready supply of roses to buy in exchange for a $1 donation to the families of the slain officers.
Jay Singletary, president of International Wholesale Floral Supply of Tampa, donated 500 dozen roses to the Police Benevolent Association to sell.
The flowers were surplus inventory, so the gesture did not come as a great expense to Singletary's company, but he was moved by the spontaneous gestures of support and hoped the roses would help.
"I saw the shrine last night and it came to mind: "I've got a perfect use for these flowers,' " he said.
Christine Mathews, Operator 93 at the Police Department, discovered similar wellsprings of charity at local businesses in the hours after the shootings. Mathews went to buy provisions for dozens of stressed-out officers who were too busy investigating the killing spree to either grieve or eat.
At Winn-Dixie, Mathews was not permitted to pay for two trays of sandwiches and five cases of water. McDonald's donated 150 burgers. Wal-Mart contributed gift certificates for food and drink.
"You're thinking the world is a really horrible place," Mathews, 31, said, "and then people step up."
Tampa Mayor Dick Greco announced there would be a joint funeral service Saturday for Bell and Childers. It was an attempt, Greco said, to create cohesion in the community. The ceremony at the Tampa Convention Center will be open to the public, and officials estimate as many as 8,000 citizens and law enforcement officers will attend.
"I think it has caused everybody to take inventory of how much the police mean to us," Greco said.
Police Officer Kevin Howell, who was nearly killed in a shooting in 1995, watched the harrowing events Tuesday at home on television. Wednesday, he returned to work and visited the memorial.
"It seemed so odd to be on the other side, and it was eerie to stand there and look in," Howell said. "Our day-to-day struggles cause us to forget, and we forget what can happen."
There were signs far away from downtown of public support for police and the victims.
Radio stations encouraged drivers to turn on their headlights in support of the officers. One station handed out blue ribbons for drivers to attach to their car antennas. The American Red Cross said it would attach dark blue ribbons to its vehicles.
Julius Chabbott, in town on a business trip from New York, made a donation to the victims' families and placed a rose on the memorial.
"I never really took Tampa for a place where this could happen," Chabbott said. "But something about this struck me for some reason. Maybe because I have a 4-year-old child, too."
It is a chilling paradox of modern American life that events of horrific violence often encourage the most dramatic displays of communal support. It happened in Oklahoma City. It happened in Jonesboro, Ark.
On Wednesday, it happened in Tampa.