Those on the second shift at Excel Industries on Thursday afternoon saw and felt something terrible, and it will change them.
Cedric Ford shot three people en route to the plant and then walked through the plant shooting at random, hitting 14 people, killing three of them, as people ran in terror or hid.
How much that changes those who witnessed the shooting or the aftermath depends on their personality — but counseling can help, experts say.
Getting to the scene of the tragedy early also helps, experts said.
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Counselors scrambled to the plant Thursday night, said Heath Bechler, chief executive of Empac, an employee assistance company under contract with Excel Industries and the Harvey County government.
The counselors were available to see plant and emergency workers on Friday for initial meetings at Mennonite Brethren Church in Hesston and Salem United Methodist Church in Newton. Agencies that were there included Empac and Prairie View, he said.
“What we are doing now is critical incident stress debriefing,” Bechler said. “We are walking them through the facts of the situation, what they can expect as far as grief and other feelings, and the resources available, and also doing a little check-in, seeing how they are dealing with it.”
Bechler said he has never dealt with a mass shooting before, but was involved in the response to the airplane crash into the Flight Safety building near what is now Wichita Eisenhower National Airport in 2014.
This is bigger, he said. It’s a lot of people, he said, perhaps 200 or 300.
On Friday, he contacted other counselors and therapists across the region willing to help on short notice. Dozens have contacted him, he said.
Bechler said he is already developing a more formal plan of action for employees in consultation with company officials. Employee assistance programs are typically short-term, but this may require services for longer.
Moving quickly limits the damage and the cost. Only about 20 percent of people offered crisis intervention in the first hours and days after a traumatic incident need additional counseling, said Ken Wolf, executive director of Incident Management Team, a Novi, Mich.-based workplace violence consultancy for large companies.
There are three basic stages for such victims, he said. The first, he said, is shock, disbelief and numbness. For the trained, it can last a few minutes. But for most people it can last a day or two.
Then comes a powerful reaction.
“After a day or two will come what can be a cataclysm of emotion: sorrow, grief, anger, feelings of powerlessness, fear of a repetition,” Wolf said.
People’s responses depend on their perception of the incident, their ability to manage stress and the level of support at home and work.
Left untreated, he said, emotions can coalesce into anger at the company or at co-workers, depression, a paralyzing sense of vulnerability or survivor’s guilt. It can damage the morale and productivity of a company’s workforce.
Not every company survives such a mass shooting, Wolf said.
Counseling can bring emotions out in the open, get people to start working through them and reach a level of acceptance about what they saw and felt. The idea is eventually to reduce the frequency and intensity of the memories, to rob them of some of their emotion.
“It’s an equilibrium, where they are sadder, but wiser,” Wolf said. “They grow through tragedy.”