The tentative return to Tops
Rose Wysocki’s family pleaded with her to transfer from the Tops Supermarket on Jefferson Avenue after she was trapped in the store during the May 14 shooting. She considered the move until she ran into a customer.
“She had hugged me and was very happy to see that I was OK, and said, ‘I can’t wait for you to come back. I can’t get cleaned greens like at your store,’ and that was what helped me make my decision — to know that my community needed me and wanted me to come back,” Wysocki said.
It was then she knew she had the pleas of another family to consider — the community that had loved and befriended her. She came back for them, in time to mark her one-year anniversary at the Jefferson Avenue location in August.
Still, each day is a struggle.
“I’ve had several flashbacks. The first couple weeks were probably the toughest,” she said.
“With construction still going on, with certain things still being completed, we heard the drills, we heard the saws, and we actually had to ask construction to take a break from it because many of us were having an issue. A lot of us that were here that day and unfortunately got trapped in the store. Hearing the construction equipment just kind of put us in a situation.”
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According to the National Institute of Mental Health, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorders typically appear within three months of a distressing incident. Those symptoms began appearing sooner for Wysocki and other employees who returned to Tops just two months after the massacre. Store managers have given, and continue to give, due time and space to those who are still processing trauma.
“They understand that we’re going to have those times, that we’re not going to be a hundred percent every day for a while. We’re all going through something, whether we were here or not here,” she said. “We’re all going through something.”
Cedric Holloway is executive director at the Johnnie B. Wiley Sports Pavilion, which is just minutes away from Tops. He said setting foot in the store is still sometimes eerie to him, which is why he empathizes with those who would have rather seen the store closed for good and memorialized for the 10 deceased victims.
“A lot of people believe … to honor them, this should not be rebuilt and reopened here as a supermarket, but recognized as hallowed ground for those who have lost their lives,” he said.
Holloway said he is glad, though, that the market reopened, especially since its updated layout addresses issues raised by shoppers who have advocated for store upgrades for years.
There’s been more foot traffic in the store since it reopened.
“I think there are more people shopping here than it was before. I don’t remember the parking lot being packed all the time,” said Will Caver, a resident of Hamlin Park for nearly 80 years who has been shopping at the Jefferson Avenue Tops since the day it opened.
Diane Colgan, a Tops senior vice president, said in a statement to Investigative Post that business is stabilizing at the store.
“With the healing process still very much underway, our customers are getting more comfortable visiting the store and traffic continues to grow. The store’s performance during the first few weeks indicates the community continues to rely on the store to fulfill their grocery needs,” Colgan said.
Caver said he takes comfort in increased security measures, such as cameras in and around the store. But for some, he said, it will take more time to feel truly secure.
“I’m trying to convince myself that it doesn’t happen twice in the same place, but sometimes it’s kind of hard going back in here,” said Shawneequa Peterson, who lives down the street from Tops.
She’s lived in the community for almost 40 years and, like Caver, was among the store’s first customers.
“When I go in there now, I look for people that I know, faces that I remember and I’m glad to see that they’re not shot and they’re still alive, especially the workers,” Peterson said.
Four months after the Tops shooting, many agree that mental health should remain a priority.
“Our folks, the African-Americans, don’t usually seek out mental health counseling,” said Holloway, a retired Buffalo police officer. “I found that out the hard way from my job and such, but it’s absolutely necessary and essential, I think, and more folks need to take advantage of it, as well.”
“It’s important that we watch and pay attention to our loved ones,” she said. “If they’re showing signs of something not quite right, we get them help. We get them help before something like this happens again, and I pray every day that it will never happen again.”