HESSTON, Kan. (AP) — Grieving residents of this small Kansas town parked riding lawnmowers with American flags planted beside them along some streets on Saturday and adorned them with “Hesston Hustler Strong” signs in a symbolic reference to the lawn equipment brand from the factory where a gunman killed three co-workers.
The Excel Industries factory nestled in the center of this peaceful community of 3,700 founded by Mennonite farmers has long been more than an economic hub. It is a source of pride that binds people together. It draws about 1,000 workers from small towns around the region and everyone seems to either work there or know someone who does.
The Hustler brand evolved in the 1960s from the tinkering of a man from a nearby town, John Regier, who built a lawn mower that could turn and maneuver more easily to cut grass around obstacles such as trees and winding sidewalks. The company now sells Hustler and Big Dog equipment around the globe and in 2013 earned the Kansas Governor’s Exporter of the Year award.
The quiet of Hesston was shattered on Thursday when Cedric L. Ford barged into the plant while about 300 people were working the second shift and opened fire. Authorities say Ford, a convicted felon, was upset after being served hours earlier at the plant with a protection from abuse order to stay away from a former girlfriend. In addition to three people killed, 14 were wounded counting two people shot as he drove to the plant.
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It fell to Hesston Police Chief Doug Schroeder, one of a force of just six full-time officers, to rush into the plant without backup and kill the gunman in an exchange of bullets. An off-duty officer drove his pickup truck to the plant and took an injured worker to a nearby ambulance.
The police chief was hailed as a hero in a community where people help each other out. But city leaders on Saturday said there were many heroes that day, including some Excel workers who carried injured people out.
Hesston Mayor David Kauffman said law enforcement converged from around the area. Just weeks earlier, the county had hosted active shooter training for area departments.
“We were prepared as much as we could be for something like this,” Kauffman said.
“At Excel, we are like a family,” said Rick Lett, a friend since high school of one of the dead, 44-year-old Brian Sadowsky. Lett worked an earlier shift that day and recalled his friend’s last words to him as Sadowsky arrived for that fateful second shift: “Have a good evening, brother.”
The other workers killed inside the plant were Josh Higbee, 31, and Renee Benjamin, 30.
For some families, multiple generations work at Excel. Karen Mosqueda worked the first shift and her daughter, Ashley, worked the second shift on the day of the attack. The daughter ran out of the building when someone shouted that there was a gunman. Some workers carried an injured colleague outside, taking their belts off as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding before going to nearby homes to get a blanket for him.
Ashley Mosqueda said that seeing the plant again when she attended a candlelight vigil Friday night brought the memories flooding back.
“It is going to be hard to walk back in, to take that first step,” she said.
At a Wichita hospital, the son of Dennis Britton Sr. is recovering from a gunshot wound that went through his lower buttock and fractured a femur bone. Dennis Britton Jr. has told his father that when he heard the shooting he dropped to the floor and then couldn’t get back up. The shooter made eye to eye contact with him.
The father, a 20-year veteran, recalled how his son looked up at him from the ambulance at the plant and said, “It hurts.” But the older Britton knows his son will have more than just his physical injuries to deal with in the coming days.
“It was pretty rough. I don’t think it has sunk in yet,” the father said. “When it does, he is going to have to do some talking.”
People are relying on their faith to get them through the days to come.
Among them are Bruce and Lori Weaver, lifelong Hesston residents, who attended Friday night’s candlelight vigil. He is chief financial officer of a machine manufacturing company in nearby Moundridge, and she is an elementary school teacher. But his brother is the Excel’s plant information technology manager, and the father of their son’s fiancé works in the office.
Lori Weaver was at the high school after the shootings Thursday, at a reception area set up there, and spent much of the evening praying for the victims’ families.
“We’re very realistic. We’re not in a bubble,” she said. “We’re going to support each other and trust God.”
The city plans a town hall Sunday afternoon to answer questions from residents, and a special church service also is planned Sunday evening in the school gym. The city has embraced the mantra, “Hesston Strong,” for its recovery efforts.
“This is something that is very tragic and we will move through this as a community,” City Administrator Gary Emry said.