HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. (NewsNation) — Tuesday morning’s scene was a chilling memorial: tipped-over lawn chairs, abandoned bikes and empty strollers adorned with American flags.
It was all evidence from a scene of chaos from the city’s Fourth of July parade. Attendees described scrambling for safety after a gunmen opened fire and killing six people in downtown Highland Park.
“We heard 30 or so loud, successive pops, like firecrackers or an automatic rifle. And then people began to scream and run toward us,” said Paul Toback, describing the moment he realized he needed to get his family to safety.
He turned to his son, who was in a wheelchair and began running while he pushed him. Navigating through the panicked chaos, they fell in the alley and his son’s wheelchair tipped over. Ryan Toback, Paul’s other son, picked up his brother and ran with him.
“We were running for our lives,” Paul Toback said. “You could hear that so many shots were going off in such a short period of time, it had to be an automatic weapon.”
The day was supposed to be a joyous milestone. This was the first Fourth of July parade in two years because of the Covid-19 pandemic. But then dozens of fired bullets sent hundreds of parade-goers fleeing.
Five adults were pronounced dead at the scene and another person died at a local hospital. The ages of the two dozen who were injured ranged from 8-85 years old, officials said. At least “four or five” of them were children, hospital officials said in a news conference Monday afternoon.
A local man, Robert E. Crimo III, has been taken in as a person of interest in the shooting.
“It was, it was really joyful. It was,” Adam Hainsfurther paused, “the Fourth of July. In an instant, it’s a nightmare.”
Hainsfurther, a NewsNation producer, attended the Highland Park parade with his family. He was only a couple feet away from where the shots were being fired.
“I’ve never heard my mom or sister scream like that in my life. And I hope I never do again,” Hainsfurther said.
Hainsfurther said a man passed him and his family. It was then that Hainsfurther could see the blood, that the man who passed him up had been grazed behind the ear by a bullet.
As they continued to run, Hainsfurther and his family waived down police officers to get the bleeding man help, but were shocked to discover that the officer had no idea what was happening.
“And it’s at that moment where you sort of are in shock the most because you you know more than the law enforcement officers who are supposed to be there to help you and just makes you feel helpless,” he said.
“You never think it’s going to happen here, and then it does,” Hainsworth said.
Lll Adrienne Drell wanted to do was escape the terrors she’s seen in the news, enjoy the parade and experience some patriotism before her plans to go swimming.
She sat on the curb, surrounded by several children, watching the parade go by. She was at peace.
“I didn’t quite realize it,” Drell said. The parade had started and the Highland Park High School marching band in their blue and white uniforms came marching in, playing a patriotic song. “I was enjoying it.”
All of a sudden, the kids in the marching band started running, passing Drell on the curb.
“And I’m thinking, wait, there’s a big grocery store behind where I was seated. And I thought maybe they’re giving away something to all these kids because they’re running toward the store,” she explained.
It wasn’t until a “big, burly man” came up to Drell and pulled her off the curb, telling her to “get out.”
“He said, ‘There’s a shooter,'” Drell said. She began walking home, still uncertain of what was happening around her, when a policeman with a giant dog came up to her and told her to get out.
“This was a place where it was supposed to be safe, and you didn’t see violence,” Drell said, “And it was mind boggling. People were stunned, literally stunned.”
Debbie Glickman was walking in the parade with dozens of co-workers when the shots rang out.
“I thought it was a firework. You know, I mean, I, in my mind, I couldn’t really grasp that this could happen in my hometown that I grew up in, and I moved back here to raise my family,” she said.
Glickman said people were screaming, “active shooter, active shooter,” and everyone just started running. She described it as mass chaos.
But Glickman had no where to run to — she was in a giant parking lot, feeling “incredibly vulnerable.”
No one knew where the shooter was stationed. Some people believed the shooter was on the ground, others claimed he was shooting from above.
“All of a sudden, this crowd got larger and larger. Strollers, parents pushing strollers, and young kids and older people all running. It felt surreal,” Maxwell Street Klezmer Band member Howard Prager explained.
Prager and his band were playing festive tunes when the other parade participants started running backwards toward their float. The driver of the float was able to evacuate the band safely, but Prager could still hear the pops going off about a half a block down the road.
“We were numb, we were at a shock,” Prager said. At first, Prager and his band members had thought maybe a celebrity had made an appearance, and the crowd was excited. But the more and more people turned and ran, it was clear something terrible was going on.
Officials revealed the shooter was positioned on the roof of a local business in the area of Second Street and Central Avenue in downtown Highland Park. They said after the shooting, he likely climbed down a ladder attached to the building to flee the scene.
Moraine Township Trustee Christine Peschier was handing out little frisbees, candy and other trinkets to kids along the parade route. It wasn’t until about 10 minutes into the parade, when Peschier and about 10 other volunteers marching with her turned the corner from St. John’s to Central Avenue, that they realized something bad had happened.
“And that’s when we realized something had really, really gone wrong,” Peschier said. “I was in, I think, denial … Typically, I’ve seen this in other parades where you see the men, the big muskets, and they stop in front of the grandstand and, and they do their little kind of honor. And so my mind first thought of that I thought, ‘Oh, this must be part of the parade.’ “
“To see it with my own eyes, to hear the gunfire with my own ears, to witness the panic and the chaos firsthand is worse … It was definitely worse to witness firsthand,” she said.
Peschier and her team made their way back to their township office. And in doing so, they had to walk right through what became a crime scene.
“And that’s the moment I knew this was not part of the parade at all. This was a real live mass shooting, and unfortunately witnessed the carnage right in front of us,” Peschier said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.