Police say suspect planned further violence, release names of Buffalo victims
BUFFALO — Keyshanti Atkinson landed a job as a cashier at Tops Friendly Markets three months ago. She immediately loved it.
Buffalo’s east side, where the majority of the city’s black population lives, is tightly knit. It’s the smallest place that can be while still being a big city, locals say.
“Wherever you walk, you’ll see an uncle or someone you know from school,” Atkinson, 19, said.
And that was also true at the supermarket. She knew almost everyone in her queue – or at least knew them through friends or family. Tops is the only supermarket on the East Side. It’s the only pharmacy. This is where some residents pay their monthly bills.
Atkinson agreed Friday afternoon to take on a co-worker’s shift at the grocery store for the weekend. She arrived at work around 12:30 p.m. Saturday. His shift was due to end at 7:00 that evening. She stationed herself at cash register No. 2 on the left side of the store.
A few minutes into her shift, she said, something seemed ominous. Her boyfriend and their 10-month-old son were coming to Tops later in the afternoon to buy groceries and visit her. Suddenly she didn’t want them to come, she said.
“I kept saying to myself, ‘I’m going to hold on until the end of the day. Nothing’s going to happen.'”
Around 2:30 p.m., she heard the first shots fired outside the store. She thought it was an argument; Gun violence is not uncommon in the neighborhood, residents complain. Then a gunman blew out a window. Chaos erupted.
Customers were running around trying to find an exit or a place to hide. The closest exit to Atkinson was the store’s main entrance. The shooter, dressed in camouflage and body armor, stood between her and the doors.
She sprinted down the aisles to her left toward the principals office.
“We were bumping into each other,” she said. “The shots seemed to be getting closer and closer.”
She ran into a conference room with a handful of other employees. A colleague slammed and locked the door, pushed a table against it and leaned on the barricade with all his might.
“We were all crying,” she said.
She took out her phone to tell her boyfriend not to come to the store with their child – but she had left it at her checkout. There was no way to warn them to stay away.
“I had a panic attack when I was in the boardroom,” Atkinson said. “I didn’t know if this was the last time I would see my son.”
Nearly 10 minutes later, a colleague knocked outside the conference room door to say it was safe to evacuate. But the people inside didn’t believe her.
A policeman arrived a few moments later and led them out of the room. Three other officers rushed down the aisles towards them with their guns drawn.
Officers yelled at them to rush out the back entrance.
And when the employees arrived at the gate, other officers told them to come out with their hands up, in case the shooter tried to blend in with the crowd.
Atkinson saw two women on their way home from church choir practice as they drove west on Riley Street next to the grocery store. She recognized them at her checkout and at countless previous meetings.
“Excuse me,” she said as they stopped. “Are you able to get me home? I need to make sure my baby is home. I just want to make sure my baby is safe.
When she got home, she picked up her son but nearly fell. She leaned back on the couch and hugged him.
She told her partner she didn’t want to talk about what happened at the store. She didn’t want to go for a walk or drink a glass of water.
“I just want to hold my son in my arms,” she told her boyfriend.